Send in the elephants 

Does Little Rock have the nerve?


The Little Rock Zoo seems to be at another turning point, large questions being raised by public officials and animal lovers about what sort of zoo there should be, and even, in some quarters, whether there should be much of a zoo at all. (Zoo detractors like state Sen. Bob Johnson don't put the question quite so starkly, but that's what's at stake when they speak of moving the zoo to some unspecified but necessarily less accessible location, at some unspecified but necessarily huge cost, to be paid from some unspecified source. They appear less interested in the zoo than in the valuable Central Little Rock land the zoo sits on.) Zoo supporters may take comfort in knowing that the zoo has reached turning points before, and, so far, has negotiated the turns more or less successfully.

The zoo was founded in 1926, with two animals — an abandoned timber wolf and a circus-trained bear. It didn't become a zoo worthy of the name until the 1930s, when a number of buildings were erected as public works projects during the Depression. Coincidentally, a new baseball stadium that would come to be called Ray Winder Field was built about the same time. Those Works Progress Administration (WPA) buildings, made from native Arkansas stone, are still around, though generally used for other than their original purposes. The zoo's full-service restaurant, a comparatively recent addition, is in one of them.

The zoo has always operated in a hand-to-mouth fashion, forced to rely on private contributors for much of its upkeep. City officials have higher priorities, such as public safety, and the state has helped hardly any at all, though the Little Rock Zoo is the only zoo in Arkansas and draws visitors from across the state, including busloads of schoolchildren.

A decade ago, the hand didn't quite make it to the mouth, and the zoo lost its accreditation by the American Zoo Association, a serious setback. Improvements were made, and changes in the way the zoo was run, lessening the influence of private fund-raisers on zoo policy and establishing the zoo as a separate department of city government, with the zoo director, now Mike Blakely, reporting directly to the city manager. Accreditation was regained.

“This is not the zoo of 10 or 15 years ago, when we lost our accreditation,” says Susan Altrui, director of development and marketing. “I think Senator Johnson has that misconception. This is a different zoo, with different leadership and different animals.” The 33-acre zoo draws 300,000 visitors a year, more than anyplace in Central Arkansas except the Clinton Library, Altrui said, and with increased financial support, it could become a world-class zoo and double the number of visitors. She points to the Memphis Zoo, Little Rock's closest competitor, as an example. “Ten or 15 years ago, the Memphis Zoo was where we are now, good but not great. In 10 years, they went from 300,000 visitors to over a million.” That progress was made, she acknowledges, with the help of big contributions from big corporations like Federal Express. Little Rock doesn't have so imposing a group of corporate donors. (Counting a recent expansion, the Memphis Zoo covers about 55 acres. The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, one of the nation's best, is about the same size as the Little Rock Zoo.)

Zoo officials think that certain improvements would allow Little Rock to make that leap to world-class. The most dramatic of these would be the establishment of an elephant breeding program, something that no other zoo in the area has — not Memphis, not St. Louis, not Tulsa.



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