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What will South Florida zoos do to survive?

By Kathleen Kernicky
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 28, 2007

It is home to more than 1,300 animals, 80 exhibits and a renowned aviary. Coming soon, perhaps, a state-of-the-art water park and an entertainment center with skating rink and putt-putt golf.

Faced with disappointing attendance and shorter visitor attention spans, Miami Metrozoo and others nationwide are struggling to reinvent themselves, mixing their core mission of conservation education with interactive exhibits, close-up encounters with animals, and in some cases, theme-park entertainment.

“We’re living in an instant-gratification society,” said Metrozoo spokesman Ron Magill. “People don’t have the patience or the will anymore to research things in depth. It’s blip, and on to the next subject.”

Metrozoo draws most of its estimated half-million annual visitors from South Florida. Destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the zoo in southern Miami-Dade County was rebuilt from splinters. Although attendance has slowly climbed back, it falls far short of the peak 800,000 people who passed through the gates in 1987.

Hoping to change that, Metrozoo is seeking proposals from private developers to build an “entertainment district” on county land adjacent to the zoo, starting with a 22-acre water park, a 200-room hotel and family center with skating rink and putt-putt golf course. Long-range plans call for an adventure theme park with thrill rides. Robyn Harper, of Hollywood, likes the idea of an entertainment district, especially a water park. “When you have kids, you need more to do,” Harper said during a recent trip to the zoo with her husband and three kids. Now, “you’re lucky to see the animals up and walking around,” she said.

While conservation remains the core message, zoos around the country are looking for ways to integrate education and entertainment, says Steve Feldman, spokesman at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Silver Spring, Md.

“If zoos are not entertaining, they will go away,” says Tim Tetzlaff, director of conservation at the family-owned Naples Zoo. “I can’t educate anybody if they don’t show up. There are plenty of great books and conservation information out there that are collecting dust on shelves. You’ve got to have that entertainment factor … The question becomes, does that dilute the message? Do animals become just a sideshow?”

Despite concerns from some environmentalists, Miami-Dade voters in November approved Metrozoo’s plans to consider private development on the adjacent county land, which borders a pine rockland reserve. The zoo would benefit by receiving a portion of the proceeds from the entertainment district, Magill said.

“I believe we are dumbing it down in some ways,” Magill said. “We’re Disneyizing the zoo. Our hope is that we’ll be able to reach a happy medium … that those kids who do want to become conservationists will do so. We’ll make the introduction here at the zoo and hopefully inspire them to go home, click on the Web and learn more.”

Metrozoo spent about $1 million on graphics and text at its new aviary, but about 80 percent of its patrons don’t bother to read it, Magill said. Its new “immersion exhibit,” titled “Amazon and Beyond,” is set to open next year. It will rely heavily on interactive computer touch screens to inform visitors and depart from the expansive barriers between animals and people in other areas of the zoo. Visitors will see the new jaguars through a pane of glass and not across a moat.

“That’s the future if we are to survive,” Magill said.

Smaller zoos, such as the Palm Beach Zoo in West Palm Beach, emphasize a personal touch, like live animal shows and informal talks between visitors and zookeepers.

“The public wants more from their zoo today,” says Terry Maple, the zoo’s president. “Are zoos struggling? Some of them are. All of us are trying to figure out how to pay for the advancing standards.”

Maple thinks technology should be used selectively, and not intrusively, to enhance what zoos do best.

“I don’t think technology is a substitute for a living animal or a human,” he said. “I’d rather have a friendly person who comes up and tells me more about that tiger than look at a computer screen. Humans are better interpreters of nature. And technology breaks down.”

His zoo, formerly known as the Dreher Park Zoo, closed for two months after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It hopes to attract about 300,000 visitors this year, about the same as 2004. The zoo has added two rare Malayan tigers and is building a stage for more live shows, including birds in flight.

Here, “the kids don’t see the fences so much. They see the animals. They feel like they’re part of this,” said Laura Youngwerth of Boca Raton, as her son, Zachary, 7, gleefully watched the river otters do back flips in the water.

Zoos know that such encounters are their crown jewel, that animals trump technology in capturing a child’s imagination and interest in nature.

“The best thing that zoos can do is to be inspiring and teach in a fun way,” Maple says. “We don’t want to be boring. At the same time, we’re a place of restorative contemplation. That’s one of our strengths. I don’t want to give that up.”

Kathleen Kernicky can be reached at 954-385-7907 or kkernicky@sun-sentinel.com.

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/broward/sfl- szoosjan28,0,4021022.story?track=rss