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Micke Grove Zoo may soon privatize, bring in new animals

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Posted: Saturday, May 19, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:47 am, Sat May 19, 2012.

Within a year, visitors to Micke Grove Zoo will see some very social and talkative gibbons and several more animal species. Within five years, the south Lodi zoo will have even more new animals, and the eastern end of the zoo will no longer look like an unfinished construction site, as it does today.

A very energetic zoological society plans to make the county-owned zoo in south Lodi a more exciting place than it's ever been. They say the secret is to privatize the zoo rather than plead with San Joaquin County for tax dollars that are going to the sheriff's office, San Joaquin General Hospital, Stockton Metropolitan Airport, social services and the proverbial potholes on county roads.

"It's a very exciting time," said Diane DeBruno, a Lodi resident who will become president of the Micke Grove Zoological Society in July. She is currently the vice president. "It's a passion for those of us who are here. I'm out at the zoo almost every day."

Visitors can eventually expect to see more interactive exhibits like the present lorikeets attraction, where people can walk inside the aviary and feed the birds nectar, zoo consultant Terry Maple said.

The 11-member zoological society is working with Maple to draw up a memorandum of understanding with the county. The MOU will say the zoological society and county agree to transition into a public-private partnership. The intent is for the zoological society board to eventually assume day-to-day control of zoo operations.

It will likely become a partnership between the county and zoological society because the grounds lie on county park property, Maple said.

Maple and DeBruno say that the planned upgrade is not a reflection against long-time zoo director Ken Nieland, who retired in March.

"Ken Nieland did a really wonderful job here," Maple said. "He's well-known in the zoo community."

The society's first step is to hire Maple to advise them about what zoo officials need to do to become more successful and how to set up a public-private partnership with San Joaquin County.

"I've become somewhat of a guru of privatization," said Maple, who took over a struggling zoo in Atlanta that became highly respected once it privatized.

Zoo officials at Micke Grove and Sacramento say that privatizing zoos is a growing trend nationally.

"It's been a very positive partnership," said Mary Healy, executive director at the Sacramento Zoo, where the zoological society has a partnership with the city of Sacramento.

When you're a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, potential donors are more likely to contribute money to the zoo, Healy said.

The Sacramento Zoo is also in a public-private partnership. It's run by the zoological society, but the city of Sacramento will always have a member on the zoo's board, because the zoo sits on city land.

In Lodi, Micke Grove Zoological Society members are also looking to regain accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

"I am especially pleased that Micke Grove is trying to get accreditation back," Healy said.

With accreditation, Micke Grove can become a contemporary zoo, participate in animal conservation programs and keep good employees, she said.

To regain accreditation, the zoo must raise more money to improve conditions for the animals. One is the "east end" of the zoo, which, according to the zoo master plan, was to house penguins, bald eagles, bald eagles, brown bears, river otters and other new animals.

But the recession has slowed things to a crawl and left the eastern end of the zoo looking like a construction site, with mounds of dirt and partially completed buildings. A veterinary clinic has been completed.

Future animals may not be the same as the ones listed in the zoo master plan, adopted in 2008.

The current zoo budget is about $1 million, but it will take further study to determine how much it will cost to upgrade the zoo, Maple said. The community will know in about six months how much upgrades will cost. The expense will depend on what upgrades are desired, admission fees, improving the food and souvenir stands, and finding out what money is available from zoo memberships and philanthropic sources, he added.

"This is going to be fun to take this zoo to the next level," Maple said. "It will be a smarter organization, a more flexible organization."

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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