Micke Grove Zoo’s future may be at a crossroads. The 5-acre zoo hasn’t been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums since 2006, and a San Joaquin County supervisor has candidly stated that the zoo is bereft with problems.
“I don’t want to be negative, but this zoo is all screwed up,” Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller said during last week’s budget hearings by the Board of Supervisors.
Ruhstaller said in a follow-up interview last week that a personality clash lies between members of the Micke Grove Zoological Society and zoo director Ken Nieland. Additionally, the Board of Supervisors should stop being passive about zoo operations, Ruhstaller said.
“We need to exercise our authority and say, ‘OK, how do we make this work?’” Ruhstaller said. “Otherwise, in six months or a year, we don’t have a zoo. I think we need to play hardball with (the zoo).”
Nieland responded, “I have never had a conversation about the zoo with Larry Ruhstaller.”
Zoological Society members differ on what their role and influence should be. Outgoing society President Bob Westwood and new President Wayne Diede have greatly different perspectives.
“Why should the county fund what the public doesn’t want?” said Westwood, who applauds the county’s trimming of the zoo budget. “(The public) doesn’t want just monkeys and birds.”
The public has been surveyed several times, and they want a variety of animals — ones who are active, run around, and stare at people as people stare at them, Westwood said.
Westwood and Ruhstaller contend Nieland doesn’t listen to the zoological society — the zoo’s primary fundraising arm.
On the other hand, Diede said, “The society is there to support the zoo, not run the zoo. This is a time we don’t want to be at odds with each other. We want to help support the zoo as much as possible.”
Westwood and Ruhstaller questioned some of the animal selections, such as the lemur, a nocturnal animal that is asleep during the day — just when the people visit the zoo.
Outgoing society Secretary Paul Kozlow noted that the zoo has had animals like turtles and Chinese alligators who aren’t terribly active.
“They see a turtle in the pond, but it’s not moving,” Kozlow said. “The Chinese alligator is a vanishing breed. We raised money for that, but the female alligator killed the male. The alligator was sleeping most of the time.”
Nieland countered that he’s had many requests for alligators, even though they, and most reptiles, lie around unless they’re looking for food.
As for lemurs, their critics are mistaken, Nieland said, because these small primates are active during the day, especially in the mornings and late afternoon. Like many animals, lemurs tend to rest in the middle of the day, he said.
What’s hurting the zoo the most, Nieland said, is that the Board of Supervisors deleted a full-time animal care specialist and two part-time positions. That drops the level of animal care by 26 percent, Nieland said.
Parks and Recreation Director Craig Ogata, who oversees zoo budgetary issues, said he hasn’t figured out a dollar amount for the zoo budget for the new fiscal year that starts today. All county parks are lumped together in the county budget, so without some significant numbers crunching, Ogata said he can’t estimate yet just how much funding the zoo will get, even though the Board of Supervisors adopted the final budget a week ago.
Parks and Recreation will get $2.4 million this year, but that includes the operation of other parts of Micke Grove Park, plus Oak Grove, Stillman Magee, Dos Reis and Mossdale Crossing parks, Westgate Landing and the county’s regional sports complex.
The zoo got $1,010,000 for the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Nieland, who started as a zoo foreman 31 years ago at Micke Grove, makes $58,302 annually. He also lives in a county-owned house on the zoo grounds, where he doubles as a caretaker.
“It was a pretty marginal operation when I came,” Nieland said.
Park founder William G. Micke built obsolete cages that were too small for the animals, especially larger ones like the polar and black bears, Nieland said. National zoo standards encourage greater space for the animals and for zoos to mimic the animal’s natural environment, whether it be water, trees or other amenities, Nieland said.
Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, based in Maryland, said that many successful zoos operate on a public-private partnership model.
A smooth relationship between governing agencies and zoological societies is an important factor in having a successful zoo, Feldman said. A well-run zoological society provides a way for the community to become involved, show support. However, people who run the zoo always have to have the final word on animal care and operations, Feldman said.
“There is only one zoo director,” he added.
A formal agreement developed by the Board of Supervisors and Micke Grove Zoological Society in 1999 states, “On all matters affecting the zoo, the county shall determine the ultimate course of any action affecting the zoo.”
Ogata, who was transferred to the Parks and Recreation director’s position a year ago, said he has tried diligently to provide information in a timely manner to zoological society members’ questions.
Ogata said he’s been talking to Diede about developing common goals between the county and zoological society.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Micke Grove Zoo at a glance
Location: Micke Grove Park, 11793 N. Micke Grove Road, west of Highway 99 between Armstrong and Eight Mile roads, Lodi.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Christmas; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May through September.
Admission: Board of Supervisors doubled admission cost last week to $4 for adults, $2 for youths 3 to 17 years. Free for ages 2 and under.
More information: Call 331-7270 or 953-8840, or visit www.mgzoo.com.
Micke Grove Zoo attendance
— Source: Micke Grove Zoo.