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Micke Grove Zoo eyes privatization, community outreach

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Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 12:00 am

Micke Grove Zoo officials are brainstorming new exhibits and organizing community outreach programs focused on bringing the zoo to festivals and underfunded schools throughout San Joaquin County.

These ideas are only part of an effort to grow the zoo and discover its potential.

But in order to accomplish that goal, the Micke Grove Zoological Society should assume management of Micke Grove Zoo from the county, zoo officials say.

“The society is growing stronger,” said the zoo’s independent consultant, Dr. Terry Maple. “It’s becoming more financially capable. It’s getting its message out. And as it grows and develops, it will be a more able partner with the county and play a more prominent role in the development of this zoo.”

For several years, San Joaquin County officials and the zoological society have discussed the possibility of privatizing the zoo.

Nothing has been submitted to the county Board of Supervisors, whose vote would be needed before any changes could be made.

However, the zoological society hopes to assume day-to-day operations of Micke Grove Zoo, including control over expenses and revenue, instead of competing with the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, San Joaquin General Hospital and other organizations and services for county tax dollars.

“We have an idea of where we can go and how we can get there,” Maple said.

In recent years, the zoological society has taken steps to gain independence through fundraising, grant writing and taking a leading role in developing new exhibits.

The zoo has also increased the number of Title I schools it visits each year, in order to provide more underprivileged schools the opportunity to visit a variety of animals.

The zoological society is also working with Maple, who took over a struggling zoo in Atlanta that became highly respected once it was privatized.

“Nobody wants the outcome to be what we have now,” Maple said. “The board wants us to have the best little zoo in America.”

A model for this plan has been the Sacramento Zoo, where the Sacramento Zoological Society inherited management from the City of Sacramento in 1997. Other than maintenance on the buildings and underground issues, the zoological society is responsible for all aspects of the zoo, including new staff, fundraising and more.

Since the transfer, the Sacramento Zoo has built several new exhibits and even a veterinary hospital.

And while Mary Healy, executive director of the zoological society, said “it’s hard to say” if those expansions would exist today if the City of Sacramento still managed the zoo, the zoo has benefited since gaining control.

“It’s been very positive,” Healy said. “There have been quite a number of projects we’ve been able to do. When we were run by the city, we had to compete for dollars with police and fire. So being able to manage our finances and expenses and revenue has helped solidify the nonprofit.”

Healy adds that donors are more willing to contribute funds knowing they’re going straight to the zoo instead of Sacramento’s budget.

However, fundraising for new projects has been the most robust obstacle for the zoological society.

“We’ve done fine on day-to-day operation,” Healy said. “The biggest challenge is raising money for capital projects. We’ve had to do a lot of fundraising. That’s where we struggle the most.”

Gabe Karam, general services director for San Joaquin County’s Parks and Recreation Department, said Micke Grove Zoo faces problems that the Sacramento Zoo did not when it privatized.

Maintenance workers and zoo employees, including animal caretakers, are unionized and can’t be privatized, Karam said. In addition to solving that problem, the zoological society would need to prove that it could independently raise millions of dollars and build new exhibits, Karam said.

“It can still work as it is working today,” he said.

Most recently, the zoological society used grants and donations to obtain a new bus that will carry animals — including boa constrictors, tortoises and hedgehogs — to schools, parties, Stockton Ports games and more.

“Right now, the focus is to build the quality of the zoo with the resources that are available,” Maple said.

Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at krisa@lodinews.com.

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