Saturday, April 01, 2006

One of Canada's Oldest Zoos Closes After Political and Management Missteps

(CP) - Canadian zoos could have their pick from a menagerie of more than 750 birds and animals after the Quebec City zoo closed Friday, throwing polar bears, parrots and peacocks into an uncertain future.

But some beasts like a pair of grizzly bears are probably too old to be moved, even if a new home can be found for the lumbering orphans. Devastated zookeepers say they have no intention of destroying any animals, but they have yet to hear the shut-down plan from the zoo's owner, the Quebec government.

"We have an obligation to these animals, and there is nobody here who is going to euthanize these animals just because the zoo is closed," keeper Karl Fournier said in an interview.

"You can imagine the international outcry if we started killing animals for such a flimsy reason."

The Jardin zoologique du Quebec suffered for years from management gaffes and chronic deficits. But the zoo also died from the fickle whims of Quebec's political culture, most famously in 2001 when then-premier Bernard Landry rejected millions in federal funding to avoid flying the Canadian flag over the 75-year-old institution.

Landry called the Maple Leaf a "red rag" as he waved off the offer of about $18 million to help pay for renovations. The project went over budget by about the same amount and the zoo never quite recovered.

"There's a whole saga of blunders," said Bob Patenaude, the zoo's veterinarian.

More recently, the federal Conservative government refused to help despite the claim by many Quebec City residents that local Tory candidates promised during the recent election campaign to bail out the zoo. Josee Verner, the minister in charge of the Quebec City region, says the candidates' words were twisted.

The provincial Liberal government finally decided to pull the plug on the zoo after a secret report that apparently recommended closure.

"We've been bounced around like a political ball for 10 years, and more recently the past three months," said Patenaude.

"We're victims of this whole political game. It's a terrible disappointment to see how the political system has run this into the ground."

Quebec City's problems weren't all political.

Most Canadian zoos suffer intermittent financial difficulties, falling out of favour with the public and their government financiers before staging dramatic recoveries, often on the back of a spectacular addition like a giant panda or white tiger.

Instead of bringing in spectacular mammals to spark public interest, Quebec City decided to specialize in birds.

After the zoo reopened a few years ago following the renovations, the price of admission was hiked to $25 per adult. Prices were later cut in half but annual attendance dropped from 250,000 in the 1990s to 60,000 by 2005. The zoo ran a $5-million deficit in each of the past three years, covering about half of its operating expenses.

The province estimates closing the zoo will cost $23 million.

The zoo in Winnipeg, a city of a similar size to Quebec City, draws about 400,000 visitors annually with an entry fee of less than $5 for adults and an annual subsidy from the city of about $4 million which covers about 80 per cent of the cost of running the zoo.

The Magnetic Hill Zoo in smaller Moncton, N.B., charges $4.50 to $8.50, depending on the season, and draws 100,000 visitors with a subsidy of a few hundred thousand dollars from the city.

But even these successful zoos face the occasional cash crunch.

"If you look at a zoo being part of a government structure, it comes near the bottom of the food chain, simply because police and fire are essential, but then you get down to parks and zoos," said Bruce Dougan, general manager of the Magnetic Hill Zoo.

"It's a wonderful thing to have, but it's not essential. That's where some of our problems generally lie."

Patenaude said the Quebec City zoo generally operated like a "living museum," recovering about half the cost of running the zoo through admissions and other fundraising.

It's a bargain compared with museums and galleries in the provincial system, Patenaude said.

Winding down the zoo will take months so Patenaude says he's not giving up yet.

"There is a whole logistical nightmare that's out there waiting for us," he said. "Even if the site closes to visitors today, the battle is not over for us."

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