Everyone in town seems to have an opinion on which course of action the Jackson Zoo's leadership, faced with financial obstacles, should take to ensure the longevity of what former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. called "one of Jackson's jewels." While most of the "facts" making the rounds are speculative, what's certain is that the zoo needs to adapt to survive at its current location or move.
The surrounding communities formed the Zoo Area Progressive Partnership in the mid-1990s for the purpose of getting the Jackson Zoo involved to improve the west Jackson neighborhoods around it. A representative from ZAPP joined Zoo Director Beth Poff in leading a group that met Sept. 25 at Jackson Restaurant Supply to discuss problems the zoo faces and ways the community can get involved.
Jackson Zoo Director Beth Poff opened the meeting by describing the appeal process the zoo's leadership is undergoing in order to remain Mississippi's only accredited zoo.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums denied the zoo's request for re-accreditation in early September, Poff says, on the grounds that the zoo was not financially stable. Since then, Jackson leadership has pledged to help fund the zoo's budget (which was $1.4 million in 2012), with the city picking up the overwhelming bulk. Now, Poff believes the appeal process will go smoothly.
"We have a nice letter from (Mayor Chokwe Lumumba) pledging his support, and I'm confident that we'll win our appeal because the only problem they listed on our review was an uncertainty around our funding," Poff said. "In the meantime, we remain an AZA-accredited zoo."
That confidence might have been dealt a blow at Monday's special meeting of the city council, where an emergency measure to provide the zoo funding was shot down with a 2-2 vote.
The emergency item called for the city to immediately disburse $418,472 to the zoo, as the mayor explained, so they would have cash-on-hand when it turned in its appeal proposal. Quentin Whitwell, Ward 1, and De'Keither Stamps, Ward 4, voted against it, even after City Council President Charles Tillman urged his council colleagues to support the measure. After speaking privately with Tillman, Stamps called for a motion to reconsider the item, but that call, which required unanimous consent, failed when Whitwell maintained his position.
AZA-accredited zoos have exchange programs for animals, for breeding or health-care-related reasons, where zoos trade animals for specified periods of time. Poff said a number of the zoo's 750-plus animals are on loan from other zoos or are "visiting" for mating purposes. If the zoo lost its accreditation, it would have to let all of its affiliated partners know, which Poff said could lead to those institutions pulling their animals out of Jackson or opting to send inspectors to monitor the quality of care the Jackson Zoo provides to the animals.
The bigger problem may be dwindling attendance numbers that do not support spending on exhibits and staff. Poff said that zoo spent millions on its exhibits in the past decade, yet it has experienced stagnant visitor numbers.
Something has to give, she said, because the zoo's attendance isn't half of what it should be for a region the size of the greater Jackson metro area.
"We're going through a situation now where we are having to shrink the size of our staff," Poff said. "We have to have a staff to match our attendance, and if our attendance is only going to be 100,000 visitors a year, we've got to find a way to pay (payroll and expenses). With our metro area, we should be (hosting) 230,000 visitors a year, so what's wrong? We've had $12 million in new exhibits in the past 10 years, so what's wrong? ... That's what the board has to wrestle with. We have to have a hard direction—it's either fix where we are, get the help of (the area) around us to come up to a certain level, or maybe the zoo is in the wrong spot."
ZAPP is one organization trying to keep the zoo in west Jackson, but others are trying to help solve the zoo's problems as well. Under the leadership of Phil Reed, the non-profit Voice of Calvary Ministries has renovated and rented dozens of houses in west and south Jackson. Reed lives within walking distance of the zoo, and has spoken to the Jackson City Council and the zoo's leadership on behalf of the community.
"I'm hopeful that the zoo is going to regain its status in terms of accreditation," Reed said. "I understand it's rare for (the AZA) to overturn a ruling on an appeal, but I think we've got a solid case, and we ought to get it."
Reed says he got involved with zoo issues when he realized the community around the zoo in west Jackson did not have sufficient representation in the conversation that seemed to be playing out in the newspapers.
"All of us in the community realize that we needed to embrace the zoo and help improve the area," Reed said. "Getting the accreditation is a first big step, and I think they will have a good case (due to) community support as well as financial support.
"We may eventually get to the point where it would make sense for the zoo to move," Reed said. "I don't see it like that right now, but maybe it's in the zoo's best interest. And maybe there's something more profitable for our community that (it) could use the land for—it is right on the medical corridor. I just think the community needs to be involved. It's got to be an inclusive process."