High Park Zoo needs stable funding

[attach]5404[/attach]While many of the biggest cuts proposed in the city’s operating budget were reversed, efforts to save the High Park Zoo were unsuccessful and the facility will be facing closure within six months unless Ward 13 councillor Sarah Doucette can find a new revenue source to keep it open.

The small, 110-year-old zoo nestled in High Park costs the city $227,000 a year to run.

Doucette moved a motion to keep the High Park Zoo open at the budget meeting, with the costs for the operation of the zoo to be offset with increased revenues from a number of ideas including llama walks and selling a High Park Zoo colouring book and zoo manure for residents’ gardens.

But Doucette’s motion was deemed out of order, because a previous motion carried in a Sept. 26 meeting directed staff to put out a request for expression of interest, which is essentially sending out a notice to see if anyone is interested in privately operating the zoo.

“I was a little blown away yesterday when this happened,” Doucette said on Jan. 18. “But I haven’t given up. I’m still moving forward.”

She says she was surprised because she amended the September motion to include a request for the general manager of parks, forestry and recreation to: “convene a focus group of experts … to explore the potential to establish conservancy models.”

Doucette says she has done her part and has worked with residents to assemble a panel of concerned citizens.

“I’ve done my focus group, that’s why we have the Friends of High Park Zoo and a business plan for revenue,” she said.

But the councillor says the city has not put out an expression of interest.

“My understanding is, I guess they haven’t done that … They would have told me,” she said.

At the time of writing, a day after the budget passed with amendments, Doucette was placing calls to city staff to try and figure out what’s going on with the expression of interest.

As it stands, the buck stops after the first six months of 2012, after which there will be no more money to operate High Park Zoo.

Doucette believes it’s a cause worth fighting for; she says the zoo is near and dear to her constituents’ hearts.

“I have seniors contacting me saying, ‘My parents took me to the zoo, I took my children to the zoo and now I’m taking my grandchildren to the zoo,’ ” she said.

The first-term councillor says a small entry fee or donation box could be effective in generating revenue, but they currently can’t estimate how much it would help because the zoo is not allowed to keep admission numbers.

“In the summertime, that zoo area is so jammed it’s ridiculous,” she said. “We have busloads of kids coming to the zoo.”

But Doucette said funding the zoo through user donations is not sustainable. She hopes a private company will step in so they don’t have to struggle to raise adequate funds every year.

“We’re also looking for sponsorship,” Doucette acknowledged. “That’s where we’re looking for the bigger bucks.”

Whatever happens, it’s now up to the councillor and local community to come up with creative ways to keep High Park Zoo open.

To Doucette, the closure of High Park Zoo is an issue that goes beyond her ward.

In addition to the 5,000 signatures on a petition she got from constituents, she noted she received more than 100 signatures from Councillor Mark Grimes’ Etobicoke ward and Councillor Michael Thompson’s Scarborough ward.

“It is back on us to try and secure stable funding,” she said. “And it’s not just my ward for this I’m fighting for, I’m fighting for the city on this one.”