Politics & Government

Sedgwick County Zoo asks county for $5.3 million for elephant exhibit

The Sedgwick County Zoological Society is turning to the county for $5.3 million to help build a new elephant exhibit.
The Sedgwick County Zoological Society is turning to the county for $5.3 million to help build a new elephant exhibit. The Wichita Eagle

Without $5.3 million from Sedgwick County or a surprise benefactor in the next few weeks, Sedgwick County Zoo officials said Tuesday they will not be able to break ground on a new elephant exhibit and will risk losing Stephanie and Cinda, elephants that have been at the zoo since 1972.

About 50 individual donors and corporations have stepped up to raise $4.3 million for what would be the zoo’s most expensive project to date, but that’s not enough, especially with a deadline looming, zoo officials said.

So the Sedgwick County Zoological Society is turning to the county to pay for a barn that would allow the zoo to bring in four more elephants with the hopes of eventually having a breeding herd. The total cost of the project is estimated at $10.5 million, scaled down by $1 million since last year. The barn as currently designed would hold up to nine elephants.

County commissioners discussed the plea for funding Tuesday at their meeting with department heads.

“$5.3 million for an elephant barn?” Commissioner Richard Ranzau asked, saying he had concerns about spending that much for an exhibit when the county said it could no longer afford to operate the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch and has its own needs, including roads.

Commissioner Tim Norton said the zoo is an important feature of the greater Wichita community and that “we’ve known for several years that this was coming. Elephants almost everywhere are one of the top draws at zoos.”

“You can’t be a world-class zoo without elephants,” he said.

The zoo is under a tight fundraising deadline because of a requirement by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that aims to make sure elephants don’t wind up living alone. The association is requiring that zoos it accredits that have two female elephants have space for at least one more, either female or male, by September 2016.

“The thought of losing Cinda and Stephanie after having them here for more than 40 years is distressing; and the possibility of having no elephants at our world-class zoo is unacceptable,” Scott Ochs, president of the Sedgwick County Zoological Society, said in a letter to County Manager William Buchanan.

Last year, the county approved a funding agreement that gave the zoo about $31.2 million over the next five years, including money to hire staff members for a larger elephant exhibit. The agreement did not include any money for the actual exhibit, which zoo officials stressed at the time.

The zoo is a public-private partnership. The county pays most zoo employees’ salaries and for infrastructure upkeep. The zoological society pays for food, supplies, utilities and other expenses.

Before last year’s agreements, the county had fallen behind on maintenance of its buildings at the zoo, and officials didn’t want to begin a fundraising campaign for the new elephant exhibit without a commitment from the county to maintain current and future exhibits. The five-year agreement did just that.

After commissioners approved the agreement a year ago as part of the county’s overall budget, the society said it would embark on a capital campaign immediately. The Eagle has asked for updates several times since then, and zoo leaders said fundraising was ongoing but never made an official announcement about it.

On Tuesday, Ochs noted “this is the biggest exhibit we’ve ever built. It’s a big yard for big animals and a big barn.”

The society faced two major challenges, Ochs said in his letter to the county.

“The first was the timeframe for raising funds,” he said. “The second, and more important and challenging, was that for the first time, we launched a fundraising effort without having a lead donor already identified. As you know in the past, those lead donors have generously given enough to make the remainder of fundraising possible.”

A majority of commissioners appeared to support the society’s request. Buchanan told commissioners that the county had enough money in its rainy-day fund to help the zoo and still maintain its financial commitment to keep at least 20 percent of its fund balance in reserve.

Commissioners considered voting on the request at their meeting this week but opted to postpone it until Sept. 10 or 17. However, Commissioner Jim Skelton said he would not be at the meeting next week, which likely would lead to a tie vote.

The new elephant exhibit would be the zoo’s most costly undertaking. Its biggest project until now was the $6.4 million Downing Gorilla Forest in 2004. The society most recently raised $3 million for the Slawson Family Tiger Trek, which opened in 2009.

If the county pays for the barn, the society has pledged to raise the rest of the money it needs for the exhibit – about $1 million – in a public campaign that would start next month. The society also would give the county naming rights to the elephant barn.

Without space for at least three elephants, the zoo would have to give up Stephanie and Cinda, who came to the zoo a year after it opened.

“If we do nothing, Mark Reed (the zoo’s director) would begin the process of placing the elephants,” Buchanan told commissioners Tuesday.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn expressed concern about building an exhibit for more elephants and then running into trouble finding more of the animals to meet the AZA’s rules.

“We could still lose Stephanie and Cinda if we don’t get a third elephant,” he said, also asking how much an elephant costs.

Commission Chairman Dave Unruh, who serves on the zoological society’s board, said, “Our zoo director is very confident he can populate this exhibit.”

Buchanan told Peterjohn “you can’t buy an elephant” and explained that zoos accredited by the AZA trade and share animals frequently.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

Now you know

Stephanie and Cinda, the Sedgwick County Zoo’s two elephants, came to the zoo in 1972 when they were 2 years old. The zoo had opened the year before.

They are from South Africa.

According to the zoo’s website, Stephanie, although smaller than Cinda, is the dominant elephant. Stephanie appears to like tactile praise more than food as a reward. She loves carrots and seems to enjoy walking backward.

Cinda usually follows Stephanie’s lead. She likes food as a reward and almost seems to rush through training so she can eat. Cinda spends more time than Stephanie does using the pool and playing with toys.

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