Whose Zoo?

Woodland Park stumbles on the way to a more entertainment-oriented makeover.

Woodland Park Zoo gorillas at home in their naturalistic habitat.

Woodland Park Zoo gorillas at home in their naturalistic habitat.

In 1976, a revolutionary plan launched Woodland Park Zoo’s celebrated transformation from a typical, dismal menagerie to a world model of humane and naturalistic zoo design, replacing pens, pits, and cages with lush “habitat immersion” for animal residents and human visitors alike. Social species got room and terrain to live in “large, naturally sized social groups,” at least somewhat as they would in the wild. Entertainment features that didn’t serve this spirit of ’76, such as a kiddie train, were eliminated.

Now comes the counterrevolution. When the zoo released a new plan last year, then-director Mike Waller and other officials were at pains to note that it preserved “80 percent” of the 1976 scheme, including many ongoing improvements in animal care and housing. But the devil is in the other 20 percent of the new vision: “Most of the issues of first-order urgency have been resolved with such success that the zoo has won no less than four Best of Exhibit awards from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association,” the plan notes. “The result of this success is that the zoo must rebalance itself to better serve its more than 1 million visitors.”

To do this, Woodland Park would install just the sort of non-zoological amusement it kicked out in 1976: an antique carousel, with rental space for birthday parties; an interactive “Discovery Center” that would further entertain the kiddies; and an “Event Center,” accommodating up to 400 guests, for rent to larger gatherings. These additions are supposedly needed not to boost attendancethe plan projects that will grow regardless, to nearly 1.4 million by 2020but to better serve visitors already coming. The obvious question: If attendance grew without these amenities, from a mere 600,000 in 1976, why does the zoo need them now?

THE NEW PLAN HAS been in the works for three years. Zoo officials thought they had finished last year, but they got mired in a legal morass as neighbors protested the plan’s impact and the city’s land-use arbitrator roundly scored the plan’s legal and environmental deficiencies. Now zoo planners are wrapping up another try. In the upcoming version, they will try to fill the gaps in the previous one, but will still express a basic change in vision and intent from the 1976 long-range plan.

More and more, Woodland Park Zoo thinks like a business and is constituted as one. The long-range plan that’s finally adopted will consolidate a regime change agreed to in 2001, transferring operation and control of the zoo from the city Parks Department to the private Woodland Park Zoological Society, formerly the zoo’s fund-raising auxiliary. But the trail has been a bumpy one. Zoo staff and consultants embarked on the project in early 2000. Early last year, after spending half a million dollars, they tendered would-be final drafts of the plan and the attendant environmental-impact statement (EIS). City Parks director Ken Bounds approved them, paving the way for City Council approval and consummation of the privatization agreement. But then the zoo’s neighbors (the Phinney Ridge Community Council and attorney Mickey Gendler) contested the EIS, contending that it didn’t adequately address traffic and other development impacts. This time, the NIMBYs were right. Last July, hearing examiner Meredith Getches blew a hole in the EIS large enough to walk an elephant through, overturning it on several important grounds, and zoo planners got back to work.

They expected first to have revisions drafted at the start of this year, then in February, then in April. Now the zoo’s publicity office says a revised plan and new EIS will take as long as they take. “It turns out there was more work involved in order to finish,” explains project manager Jim Maxwell. “We want to make sure we do a good job.”

THESE EXERTIONS POINT up just how much was lacking in what should be an epochal document for the zoo. Environmental- impact statements are supposed to posit alternative approaches to help policy makers arrive at the best one (even if that has a funny way of turning out to be the scheme favored by the folks sponsoring the EIS). The zoo folks appear to have been so ardent about their plan, they didn’t go through this exercise. As the appellants complained, and Getches concurred, they merely offered the obligatory “no action” alternative (sticking with the 1976 plan) and five variations on a single, preferred alternative. The only significant variations: whether a proposed parking garage would have 710 or 888 or 1,054 spaces, and sit at the zoo’s south or west entrance or be split between both. As Getches tartly noted, you’d think this was all about “development of a parking structure, not a long-range plan to guide future operation and development of the zoo.”

The failed EIS contended that all the additional parking (up to seven stories, mostly underground) wouldn’t draw more visitors; it would merely induce those already coming to stop parking on neighborhood streets. But space in the zoo’s current surface lots usually goes begging, while visitors save a few bucks by parking on nearby streets. The 2002 plan doesn’t outline any measuresfree parking or residential parking stickersto fix that.

LIKE THE ANIMAL INMATES under the 1976 plan, human staffers will see their habitat expanded and improved under the new scheme. They’ll get a two-story office building with a private gym and nearly twice the space of the trailers and smaller building in which they now work. It’s touted as a “green” building using “natural materials and energy-efficient design, creating simple, more-natural places for zoo staff and volunteers to work”just the sort of language used to describe naturalistic animal enclosures.

Those virtues don’t mollify former Zoological Society board member Irene Wall, the president of the Phinney Ridge Community Council and leading opponent of the new long-range plan. Wall, who was nudged off the zoo board last year because of this conflict, finds this “40,000-square-foot office building in a park in a single-family neighborhood” especially unsuitable. Despite a big push into the events trade, the zoo doesn’t foresee renting out this building’s extensive meeting space (which would draw yet more traffic that the long-range plan doesn’t account for). But, Wall warns, “once they have the space, it will be an enormous attraction to do that.”

Perhaps zoo planners can reconcile, not just finesse, the development and neighborhood issues. They are now undertaking the much-needed traffic study that the EIS surprisingly omitted. But the underlying questions will remain: Can the zoo fully serve the animals it keeps and the people it wants to attract? And if not, who comes first?

Rhino Time Shares, Lion Loans

Woodland Park Zoo’s new long-range plan includes a novel animal-care scheme that, depending on which outside expert you talk to, is an exciting, promising experiment or a weird and dangerous gamble: time shares. It proposes rotating elephants and Asian rhinocerosesthe next charismatic mega-giants on the zoo’s acquisition listthrough the same grounds, to be carved out from the current elephant yard. And, as drafted last year, it suggests likewise rotating the African wild dogs and spotted hyenas. The latter idea’s now moot, since the hyenas are being cut from Seattle’s collection. Zoo deputy director Bruce Bohmke instead wants to connect the wild dog and lion enclosures, so the dogs can explore the lions’ turf (while the latter, who’d likely kill the dogs, are locked indoors).

In the first case, space is a concern: Woodland Park doesn’t have a lot of it for the rhinos, so why not borrow some from the elephants? After all, the plan notes, “the southernmost elephant yards are presently not well used by the elephants.” This finding seems at best out of date: Baby Hansa and her grown companions frequent those yards. Nevertheless, Bohmke argues that time-sharing could also give elephants beneficial “enrichment”new spoor to smell and a closer simulation of wild habitat, where different species share territory. For the endangered wild dogs, enrichment is the whole idea: to break the monotony and give these frisky hunters new territory to explore, with the frisson of fresh olfactory traces of their deadliest rival.

Bohmke admits the idea is “untested,” though many zoos do scatter tantalizing antelope dung in their big cats’ pens (it beats catnip). “It will be a very interesting experiment,” says Michael Hutchins, science director of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. “It could be very stimulating.”

Or disastrous. Warns Richard Farinato, the Humane Society of the United States’ director of captive wildlife protection: Mixing species also mixes pathogens. “Any time you use multispecies enclosures, you have to be extremely attentive to the transmission of diseases and parasites”especially with carnivores like dogs and lions. Then there are the problems of moving dangerous creatures safely through the enclosures and keeping them apart. “These animals are potentially lethal and [in the case of dogs and lions] not trained. If, god forbid, you pull the wrong door at the wrong time, you could have a real problem.” The likeliest risk, Farinato adds, is stress: Elephants and rhinos, and lions and dogs, have “some pretty nasty interactions in the wild.” How will they feel crossing olfactory paths in narrow confinement? “Change is not good for most of these critters,” says Farinato. “Consistency is essential.”

Or deadening, Bohmke and Hutchins counter. “Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” says Hutchins. “Animals get stressed all the time.”

“One man’s stress is another man’s enrichment,” says Bohmke; likewise for lions and rhinos and dogs. He insists that keepers would merely open the new spaces up to the animals. “We certainly wouldn’t force them.”

But why hazard it at all, asks Farinato: “If you don’t have space to give animals adequate room, why are you getting more of them?” Still, if someday you see rhinos waddling in the elephant pasture or big-eared, piebald dogs sniffing around the lions’ den, see if they look terrified or enraptured. The whole zoo world may be watching, too.


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