Cash-strapped Indiana zoo could lose nearly half its animals

The national association that accredits zoos and aquariums has given Evansville's Mesker Park Zoo one year to fix maintenance concerns or the zoo could lose nearly half of its animals.

Zoo director Amos Morris told the Evansville Courier & Press that he should be able to satisfy the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' immediate concerns to remain accredited if money from City Council comes through.

According to the zoo's review the association found that Mesker's is inadequately funded, is too slow in updating the facility and defers maintenance too long.

Mesker Park is one of only four zoos in Indiana accredited by the AZA. The others are in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and South Bend. The AZA accredits only about 215 zoos across the country.

Morris said with the current zoo funds, short-term problems can be resolved but not the big maintenance issues. The zoo's day-to-day operations are funded by about $4.7 million in tax dollars annually, but that money doesn't cover other expenses.

"I can fix a barn," he said. "I can get mold off a roof. But the other piece of this is long-term sustainability. We need to create something that allows the zoo to be successful in this community."

In September, City Council approved giving the zoo an extra $112,000 for maintenance this year. On Monday, it'll consider allocating $900,000 from the city's riverboat funds for larger maintenance projects and a new exhibit design.

"In government, so many people are vying for dollars, we tend to use things until they break, and only then fix them," said Dan McGinn, Evansville City Councilman and Mesker's former zoo director. "That doesn't work with zoos. To do a zoo right, zoos are very expensive. They constantly need improvements to make things better."

Almost half of the zoo's animals are on loan from other accredited zoos, including a jaguar, rhinos, tigers, antelope and red pandas. If Mesker loses its accreditation, those zoos could take their animals back in 2017.

"It would be a mess," said Amos Morris, Mesker Park Zoo and Botanical Gardens' director. "Almost half our zoo would be in question. The collection would look a lot different."

This is not the first time Mesker Park Zoo faces losing their accreditation. The zoo was first accredited in 1985 and lost their accreditation in 1998; they later regained it in 2002.

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