Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Zoo Woes Mount

Off the island, one of the top local attractions for some years in the Florida panhandle has been the Zoo of Northwest Florida, located "down the highway" in Gulf Breeze. For a community the size of Greater Pensacola it's been a fun-to-visit educational facility with a surprisingly wide range of well-appointed animal exhibits, a still-impressive animal breeding program, and visitor-friendly attractions like the zoo train, concession stands, and picnic area.

Tourists enjoy it. Schools rely upon it for the most popular of their student field trips. Many resident families make at least one visit a year to the zoo.

It's especially impressive for those who remember what passed for a Gulf Breeze 'Zoo' decades ago. What we recall from the late '60s and '70s was a miserable, privately-owned Old Florida mom-and-pop roadside collection of piteous cages imprisoning a couple of flea-bitten bears, clinically depressed foxes and an alligator or two.

However dramatic the improvement in more recent times, it's obvious the Zoo of our time is once again a deeply, deeply troubled institution. As a number of local papers have been pointing out with the occasional news downer, it's been cursed with ineffectual management (now replaced and reorganized as a public charity), starved for funds, embarrassed by a few well-publicized animal deaths, and hit by new and more expensive state bonding regulations. Now, it's facing the double-whammy of declining attendance and rising costs. With the escalating gas crisis, things can only get worse.

The hurricanes of 2006-05 delivered what may turn out to have been the coup de grĂ¢ce. Losing accreditation in 2006 from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums wasn't any help, either, although hope remains that accreditation can be regained rapidly if only the new charitable foundation that's now running things can secure a reliable source for the $3 million needed to pay off existing debt. The local fund drive over the past year energized zoo fans from 2 to 92, but in the end volunteers were able to raise only a third of what is needed.

Now, it seems, the 'new' new management has been taken by a con man. Or almost taken, to be more precise. Louis Cooper of the PNJ has the early dispatch:
A year’s worth of negotiations to bring a headline-making fund-raiser to The Zoo in August hit a brick wall Tuesday, with officials learning the proposal was a hoax.

Danyelle Lantz, executive director of The Zoo, was scheduled to host a news conference today flanked by stars and executives from Disney’s popular “High School Musical” movie series to announce a major fund-raising event aimed at raising $150,000 for the cash-strapped park.

Lantz said The Zoo had been working with “someone posing as a representative of Zac Efron, a member of the cast of Disney’s ‘High School Musicial,’ Drew Seeley, a performer associated with various Disney Channel albums and programs and Disney Corporation.”

But officials learned late Monday that was not the case.
It's humiliating, for sure, but hardly the biggest problem the Zoo faces. That's the fact that no local government, well-heeled charity, corporate giver, or wealthy locals with ample means have stepped up to take the Zoo off life support.

Try as we do, we can't banish the suspicion this might have something to do with the fact that the Zoo occupies over 50 acres of prime real estate along Highway 98. Here in the panhandle, whenever it's Developer versus Man, Developer wins. How much higher do you suppose are the odds when it's Developer versus Monkeys?

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