Experts say no zoo management firms

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Replacing the current group that manages the Jackson Zoological Park might be easier said than done.

Jackson city officials are considering bringing on a new group to oversee the park, after the Jackson Zoological Society voted to move the park to Northeast Jackson.

However, finding a third party could prove to be difficult.

Zoo experts say there are no zoo management firms in operation in the United States.

Additionally, any firm brought on by the city would have relatively little to manage.

The city owns just seven of the 380 animals housed at the park. The rest are owned by the zoological society.

Even so, city officials say they may look for new zoo leadership if the society is unwilling to back off on plans to relocate.

“The conversation is about preparing an RFP (request for proposals) for a new management firm,” said Jackson Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine.

“The city owns the land. The zoological society is a vendor for the city. We can cancel the contract with the vendor.”

Any decision would have to be made fast.

The city’s contract with the society is up in September, and it could take months to have a new management team in place.

However, finding that management team could be nearly impossible.

John Seyjagat, executive director of the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), a national zoo accrediting agency, said there are no third-party firms in the United States that specialize in overseeing zoos.

Additionally, he said permitting a third party to manage a zoo would likely be difficult.

“There’s no example of it in the United States,” he said.

Under the federal Animal Welfare Act, zoos must be permitted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Permits are required to ensure zoos provide a high quality of animal care.

Before they’re issued, applicants must provide lists of animals, data on veterinary service, animal nutrition plans and animal housing.

Beth Poff, executive director of the Jackson Zoo, said the USDA won’t issue a permit without having that information.

Like Seyjagat, Poff also didn’t know of any zoo management firms. “I’ve called my friends (at other zoos) and they also didn’t know of any,” she said.

Blaine, though, said zoo management firms do exist. “I’m not an expert on zoos, but from what I’ve been told, there are (some out there),” he said.

A quick Google search by the Sun turned up zero management firms.

 

In March, the zoo board voted unanimously to begin studying moving to the golf course at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.

The 13-member board made the decision, citing declining attendance, aging structures and budget cuts.

The decision also came after private consultants determined that the zoo would have to move to survive.

In 2016, the society brought on Schultz and Williams to determine whether donors would support a $15 million capital campaign to fund park improvements.

The year prior, the society had drawn up a zoo master plan, which included some $100 million in park renovations, including adding an indoor rainforest exhibit and a new adventure zone for children.

According to consultants, “100 percent of the people interviewed had concerns about donating to the zoo at its current location.”

The zoo is located at 2018 W. Capitol Street, in West Jackson. The park is surrounded by blight and located in what is one of the most dangerous areas in the capital city.

The society’s decision has drawn harsh criticism from city leaders, including Mayor Chokwe Antar  Lumumba, who said he would use every tool in his tool box to prevent the move.

And at an April Jackson City Council meeting, Ward Three Councilman Kenneth Stokes introduced a motion to cancel the zoo’s contract within 90 days written notice.

The motion was withdrawn after nearly an hour of heated debate.

In addition to the society’s desire to move, Stokes raised other concerns as well, including the zoo’s lack of animals.

“They have taken our animals and sent them to other cities without our permission. People are going to the zoo and half the animals are not even there,” he said. “We’re going to sit back and let this company do what they want to the zoo until they run it into the ground.”

Stokes was referring partly to the elephants, one of the zoo’s most popular exhibits, which the park had to give up to maintain AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation.)

The zoo gave up the accreditation in 2016, largely because of its financial situation. Today, the zoo is accredited by the ZAA.

Ward Seven Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay said the city hasn’t lived up to its end of the contract. Under the 2006 agreement, the city is responsible for maintaining the zoo property, as well as providing a minimum of $880,000 in funding to the park each year.

“I remember all too well when I was a member of the zoo board, I would come before the council year after year ... pleading for full funding for the zoo, which is required in the contract ... The city did not support the zoo, except for your father, who helped us save our AZA accreditation that year,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay, a former zoo board member, was referring to the current mayor’s late father, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. In 2013, the then mayor supported the zoo’s request for full funding, which allowed the park to maintain its accreditation at least temporarily.

Despite Stokes’ motion being pulled, the majority of council members are still opposed to the zoo moving.

Ward Five Councilman Charles Tillman wants the zoo board to rescind its vote to relocate, and the city and zoo to come back to the table to discuss concerns.

“We can’t do anything going forward with that still out there,” he said.

 

 

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