NC Zoo deserves the state's full support

May 6, 2014 

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An elephant grazes Wednesday at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. The North Carolina Zoo Council, which oversees the operation of the zoo, is looking for ways to pay for repairs and renovations to keep it one of the best in the country. The zoo turned 40 this year, and tight state budgets in recent years have some parts looking their age.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

It might come as a surprise to some North Carolinians dismayed by the budget-cutting and shortchanging of education and other needs of late, but the state at one time was an innovator in the investment of public money. The first state symphony. The first art museum created by legislation and public funds.

Our public universities are among the best. And in downtown Raleigh, investment in recent years has created a Museum of Natural Sciences second to none. Just the building alone has created buzz from the coast to the mountains, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of visits from school kids and families.

But has another spectacular asset slipped from the public’s attention and that of state lawmakers? The North Carolina Zoological Park is in trouble, with many of its once-cutting-edge facilities in serious need of renovation and repair. Lawmakers must step up and answer the alarm sounded by zoo supporters. Otherwise, this home to creatures great and small that many North Carolinians will see at their zoo and only at their zoo will itself be an endangered species.

In 1972, lawmakers set the stage for voters to approve $2 million in bonds to get the zoo started. Now on 2,000 acres and the world’s largest “walk-through” facility, it is one of only two state-owned zoos in the United States. Support for the idea was mustered all over the state through a zoo commission, and a site was chosen in Randolph County near the state’s center. One of the key figures in the zoo’s formation, incidentally, was from Raleigh, the late state Rep. Archie McMillan.

It’s estimated that more than 700,000 visitors go to the facility every year.

And the zoo has been praised by any number of experts, including the famed Jane Goodall, who has been there.

In short: The zoo is a jewel in the state’s crown, and it needs to be polished and in a position to be seen by as many people as possible.

After the initial excitement more than 40 years ago, the zoo continued to draw schoolchildren, families, retirees and scientists who could conduct animal study in the zoo’s realistic outdoor habitats. The state put in millions of dollars, and the zoo’s private support group added millions more. The zoo was, for a time, a splendid showcase. When Dr. David Jones came on board as director 20 years ago, the future looked great.

But time and wear and funding shortages have taken a toll. The zoo’s largest building, the African Pavilion, needs to be rebuilt, and at 54,000 square feet, that will take $30 million. Two or three smaller buildings would replace it. Zoo design is ever-changing, and facilities have to keep up with trends if they want to be able to get animals from other zoos.

The zoo is hoping for an investment of $60 million over the next decade, with $20 million raised privately and $40 million from bonds. It would be a worthwhile investment. The alternative is to limp along, see the zoo further deteriorate and put its future in jeopardy.

Surely the millions of visitors from within the state’s borders alone would not wish to see that happen and will get behind an investment by pushing the idea with their representatives in the General Assembly. The zoo has brought much favorable attention to the state and much joy to residents, who can easily get to the site from both ends of the state. It must be maintained for all those intangible dividends.

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