Could there be a new future for The Zoo?
November 28, 2009 4:15 PM
Kari C. Barlow
GULF BREEZE — The only sounds coming out of The Zoo these days are from the few animals that remain on the closed preserve.
Zoo officials won’t talk about the number of animals they have left or how they’re paying for their care.
But the long-struggling zoo might still have a future.
Three months after closing, officials are in talks with the Virginia Safari Park in Natural Bridge, Va.
“We are negotiating, but nothing has been finalized,” said Eric Mogensen, director of the drive-through animal encounter park in Natural Bridge, Va. “Probably nothing would be done until after the first of the year.”
For now, The Zoo’s gravel parking lot sits quiet and empty, though a lone giraffe can be seen from nearby U.S. Highway 98.
The bright and festive ZOOLights — from twinkling elephants to Blue Angels jets — that once graced the property during the Christmas holidays have moved west to be used at the Pensacola Beach Boardwalk.
The animals that remain at the 30-acre zoo are in good condition, said Jerry Shores, a zoo investigator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“Everything is impeccable,” Shores said. “They still have the core staff that is taking care of them. … They’re slowly re-homing the animals is what it appears to me.”
Pat Quinn, who founded the zoo in 1984, confirmed Friday that talks with the Virginia Safari Park are ongoing but declined to give any details about plans for the animals or the zoo property.
“When we have the information … there will be a press conference,” he said. “I want to do it right.”
Mogensen, who described the possible acquisition as “a last-minute thing,” said he is impressed with The Zoo property, its animals and the potential for a safari-like park.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “It’s family-oriented, neat, clean.”
Mogensen said the Virginia Safari Park is a different business model from The Zoo in that it does not ask its surrounding community for support.
He said he was aware of the zoo’s financial difficulty.
“We would like to see it stay open (as some kind of park),” Mogensen said.
The Zoo Northwest Florida was managed by Animal Park Inc. until 2004, when the company turned it over to the Gulf Coast Zoological Society. The Zoo was forced to close in October when the Zoological Society, because of severe debt, could no longer operate the facility.
Quinn and his API partners currently are footing the bill for the zoo’s expenses.
In return for the use of the ZooLights decorations, Pensacola Beach Boardwalk tenants made a $5,000 donation to help feed the animals.
“There’s still a giraffe there,” said Jerry Shores, a zoo investigator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “There are still lions there. There are still cougars there. A variety of monkeys. … There’s still new world monkeys and old world monkeys and apes.”
Some reptiles and birds also are still housed on the property, he added.
Shores said The Zoo’s full-scale animal husbandry falls under the regulation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.