Tuesday, September 16, 1997
Scare tactics won't work on zoo levy

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Zoo has only one bull, the Asian zebu in its Children's Zoo. So I don't know where all that stuff was coming from that was being shoveled out of there last week.

The zoo's executive director, Ed Maruska, told The Enquirer's editorial board that if voters don't give him more money to run the zoo and build a parking garage, the elephants will be evicted.

Nonsense. Or barnyard words to that effect.

If we don't cough up the money for a new parking garage, the director will simply have to figure out a way to cut some other corner. Nobody knows that better than Mr. Maruska. But he also knows that we surely do like those elephants.

Elephant hostage

Polls - probably paid for by us taxpayers - show that elephants and polar bears are the zoo's most popular animals. That is a statistic that 100 percent of people who go to the zoo with kids already know. When was the last time your kid demanded to see the okapis? Or the naked mole rats? Or the wallaroos?

Myself, I could live without the bats, and frankly, if you've seen one eland, you've seen them all. But you show me a zoo without elephants and I'll show you an animal museum and feeding center. And you show me a zoo where kids don't want to go, and I'll show you an empty animal museum.

Voters are being asked to pass a tax levy Nov. 4 that will more than double the money the zoo gets from Hamilton County property owners. Right now, the zoo gets $4.8 million from us every year, and it wants $10.3 million.

If we give the zoo the money, about half of it will be used to pay for a new $20 million parking garage, allowing the elephant house to expand into the adjacent parking lot.

If he doesn't get the money, Mr. Maruska says, the elephant enclosure can't be enlarged - and keeping four in the same small pen is inhumane. Did the elephants just riot? Or sign a petition for better conditions? If not, a reasonable person might suspect that the critical nature of the problem is being, shall we say, exaggerated. They have been living there since I can remember.

"If the levy fails, we will remove all the elephants," Mr. Maruska told us.

Excuse me for saying so, but I don't believe you will.

Moneybags R Us

The citizens of Hamilton County are fed up with being treated like idiots. Most of us - and this is an informal poll, unlike the one about the polar bears and the elephants - would take back our half-cent investment in the football stadium if we could. So, we are a little on the muscle about money anyway.

"We're very much aware of the demands being made on people," says Kerry Clark, vice president of the zoo's board of trustees. He didn't threaten to take our elephants, but he said if this levy doesn't pass "our zoo will never be the same."

We'd like something more specific and more creative than just telling us that you're going to close the most popular exhibits or jack up the admission price.

"Zoos have an almost awesome responsibility," Mr. Maruska says, "and it's not only to display animals to the public for their amusement, but to play a greater role in the field of conservation." We appreciate that, and we hope you'll continue to discharge your awesome responsibility.

We are a little awed by our own responsibilities. Food, shelter, education for our kids - and other people's. Call us unsophisticated. Maybe we're easily amused. But we like elephants. And it's our zoo. And our money.

You've got some time between now and Nov. 4. Tell us that the zoo is our third-greatest tourist attraction, right behind the Reds and Paramount's Kings Island. Remind us that it's a more important destination than a football game will ever be.

Tell us how many of our children have been amazed and delighted and educated there. Tell us how hard you work to make sure you spend our money carefully. Tell us your plans to make the zoo more profitable, less dependent on our tax money.

We're listening.

But don't threaten to take away our elephants. We don't believe it anyway, and it only makes us mad.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.