Newly privatized Dallas Zoo looking ahead to new habitat, other changes
01:22 PM CST on Tuesday, January 5, 2010
By DAVID FLICK / The Dallas Morning News
The start of 2010 marks the end of a tough decade for the Dallas Zoo, but perhaps the beginning of a turnaround year.
The Oak Cliff institution has endured financial crisis and political controversy, including the international criticism that followed a 2004 gorilla attack and a spirited debate in 2008 over the fate of Jenny the elephant.
Dallas City Council voted last summer to turn over management of the municipal zoo to the private Dallas Zoological Society, and the new year promises to bring a spurt of new attractions, more animals and the opening of the zoo’s most ambitious exhibit in a generation.
“I think we’re finally at a point where we can say this is where we want to be,” said Gregg Hudson, executive director of the Dallas Zoo. “I don’t want to set expectations too high, but this really could be the watershed year for us.”
Some of the changes were in the works long before the zoo’s privatization, which was completed in October.
The Giants of the Savanna habitat, the zoo’s biggest project since the Wilds of Africa opened in 1990, is a product of the 2006 city bond campaign.
Scheduled to open in late spring, the 11-acre habitat will seek to replicate the African grasslands, populated with elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, ostriches and zebras.
Other long-planned projects are coming on line this spring.
The aging Cat Row will be converted into a Texas Predators exhibit that will feature ocelots and mountain lions. And the process of closing the “top of the hill” exhibits will begin, with some of the marquee animals, such as rhinos and cheetahs, moved to more prominent settings.
The two episodes that brought bad publicity will also result in visible changes next year.
Perhaps the biggest blow to the zoo’s image occurred in March 2004, when Jabari, a 13-year-old western lowland gorilla, escaped his enclosure by making a running leap over a 14-foot wall. He mauled three zoo visitors before being killed by Dallas police, and the story attracted global attention.
Controversy erupted again in 2008, after zoo officials announced plans to move Jenny, then the zoo’s last remaining elephant, to a wildlife park in Mexico. Celebrities – most notably comedian Lily Tomlin – protested the plan, saying the pachyderm should go to the broader expanses of Tennessee. Jenny stayed in Dallas and was joined by another elephant, Gypsy, last July.
However painful, the controversies triggered internal debates about how the zoo was run and what the institution should be. An internal study following the Jabari incident, for example, called for new leadership, leading to the 2006 hiring of Hudson.
The new director’s background included the hospitality industry and – tellingly – a stint as executive director of the Fort Worth Zoo during its own transition to privatization in the early 1990s.
Not coincidentally, the Dallas Zoo, whose leaders long believed the facility should operate primarily as an educational institution, will in 2010 see entertainment-friendly features more typical of zoos such as Fort Worth’s.
The Savanna habitat, for example, will include a restaurant with vistas of the animals and grasslands. The zoo will offer camel rides, and visitors to the children’s zoo can help feed the goats.
The Jenny debate also had its consequences, though some of these will be less visible.
The debate caused zoo officials to rethink their plans – they decided to keep Jenny and expedite long-range plans for a larger facility in Dallas. Current plans call for the zoo to keep up to eight elephants.
The activists’ concerns also prompted officials to reimagine the facility in a way that will give the animals more physical exercise and mental stimulation.
“When I first came in, I wasn’t sure, quite frankly, that we even wanted to continue to have elephants,” Hudson said. “Jenny was a turning point. … My hope is that when people walk in and see the new facility, they’ll say this is the best thing that could have happened.”
The decision last year to privatize the Dallas Zoo is likely to have a profound effect on the institution, but perhaps in less obvious ways.
Michael Meadows, president of the Dallas Zoological Society, said the most profound difference will be a change in culture – making it more entrepreneurial and more responsive.
“When it was a city operation, it was difficult to make changes in staff; it was a kind of a tenured-faculty situation,” he said. “Now that it’s privately managed and, say, there’s someone at the front gate that’s taking tickets and not greeting people with a smile, we can say, ‘This might not be the best job for you.’ “
During the privatization discussions last summer, Meadows argued that it would be easier to raise money for a privately run zoo.
Early in December, the point seemed proved when the zoological society announced that four donors had pledged $2.25 million since privatization began Oct. 1.
Still, Meadows acknowledges that the ongoing recession has complicated matters.
“It’s a tough economy, but there’s a willingness to donate and we have a credibility with the private sector that wasn’t there before,” he said.
Admission fees were raised shortly before the City Council voted for privatization last summer. One widely feared change – that they would increase again in the near future – may not occur, according to Hudson.
“The feeling is that we want to increase revenue not by raising prices again, but by bringing more people through the turnstile,” he said.
Nationally, zoos that have privatized have generally done well, said Terry Maple, director of the Palm Beach Zoo in Florida.
“The track record is pretty good,” he said. “Even privatized zoos that are struggling because of the economy are probably better off. Things are even tighter on local governments.”
Maple, former director of the Atlanta Zoo, is widely considered an expert in turning around ailing zoos.
Privatization of management will distance the zoo from local politics, he said, and because the city of Dallas has retained ownership of the facility, it will be able to ask voters for bond money to finance high-profile projects. He advised Dallas Zoo officials to think of themselves as competing with theme parks. The entrance has to be inviting, and the grounds need to be clean and exciting, he said.
Even blockbusters like the Giants of the Savanna lose their luster quickly, he said, so there must be a continuing challenge to stay fresh.
“No matter how successful they are the first year, in the second year, attendance is going to drop. So you’ve got to have some new program, something to attract people back,” he said
At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, which is considered a model of successful privatization, deputy director Bruce Bohmke cautions Dallas officials and the public to be patient.
“Switching over takes time. Even after seven years, we have employees who think they are still working for the city,” he said. “And as late as five years out, we discovered that we were still operating two separate switchboards.”
By privatizing, Dallas is joining a nationwide trend, Maple said.
“Everything in the zoo business has changed, and Dallas is making itself part of this revolution,” he said. “I think they’ll be very successful.”
TIMELINE: DALLAS ZOO
1888 – The Dallas Zoo is founded.
June 1990 –The Wilds of Africa exhibit opens.
March 2004 –A gorilla, Jabari, attacks patrons.
October 2009 –The zoo is turned over to private management.
May 2010 –The Giants of the Savanna habitat is scheduled to open.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org