As part of his plan to help New York address a potential $15.4 billion budget shortfall, Gov. David Paterson has called for cutting funding for the Zoo, Botanical Garden and Aquarium Program from $9 million to $4 million in the state's 2009 budget and for eliminating funding in 2010.
"We can't fire our bears or furlough our sea lions," said John Calvelli, executive vice president of public affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Central Park and Bronx zoos and the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, among others.
New York isn't the only place where hard financial times threaten government support for zoos, aquariums and gardens, known collectively as "living museums."
In California, city council members ordered work halted late last year on a new $42 million elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo because of the city's fiscal woes. In North Carolina, state lawmakers recently told the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro it won't get $4 million for repairs and new exhibits because of a budget shortfall.
Last year, city leaders slashed the Kansas City Zoo's budget by 20 percent, while The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore closed four weeks early this winter to save money and offset budget cuts from the state Legislature. In Florida, state lawmakers cut $2 million for manatee hospitals at Lowry Park Zoo, SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium.
Living museums typically operate on a variety of funding from government, philanthropic organizations, corporations, and admission and sales revenues, said Steve Feldman, executive director of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a Maryland-based organization that accredits zoos and aquariums.
"It's been more difficult for some than others, depending on their mix," Feldman said. "But nearly all are being forced to cut back on spending and costs. The largest and deepest cuts at the state level, though, have come in New York."
Combined, New York's living museums had more than 12 million visitors in 2008, according to the Coalition of Living Museums. Calvelli said the Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium generated more than $289 million in economic activity last year.
To rally its supporters, the Wildlife Conservation Society posted a video on YouTube depicting the zoo's director laying off a porcupine because of the proposed funding cuts; a toad waits outside the office, the next to go.
If Paterson's proposal is carried out, zoo officials say they will have to cut staff, eliminate educational and outreach programs, cut back on free and reduced-admission hours and - in the most dire cases - close exhibits and ship collections to other facilities.
Jeffery Gordon, a spokesman for the state's budget division, said Paterson will focus the state's more than $200 million in environmental funding on "critical capital initiatives that provide ongoing environmental benefits" rather than annual operating support to organizations, which he said tend to have more options for raising money.
The Zoo, Botanical Garden and Aquarium Program helps defray operational costs for more than 75 zoos, aquariums, arboreta and nature centers in New York. Even before Paterson's proposal, the program failed to keep up with their rising costs, said Chuck Doyle, director of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse.
The zoo was set to receive $168,000 from the program this year, about 5 percent of its $3 million budget, Doyle said.
"To be honest, we've already spent it," he said.
Doyle said the zoo would likely cut back on some of its educational programs and reduce the number of part-time summer employees it hires.
"We will have to shift funds to take care of our animals," he said.
It has become increasingly difficult for zoos to raise private funds from foundations for basic operations and maintenance. Not only have their endowments shrunk because of Wall Street's financial meltdown, but foundations typically prefer to support specific programs or events, not general operating costs.
In New York, wildlife advocates questioned the fairness of state cuts, pointing to the governor's comments during his State of the State address last week calling for "shared sacrifice."
"We all understand that we are in financial difficulties, but the point here is work with a scalpel, not an ax," Calvelli said.
The Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium stand to lose about $3 million under Paterson's proposal - the equivalent of 30 staff positions between the two facilities, Calvelli said. He said the zoo may be forced to send some of its animals out of state if the cuts are carried out.
Wildlife Conservation Society supporters already have sent more than 10,000 protest letters to the governor's office, Calvelli said.
Zoo officials say the cuts couldn't come at a worse time. While the economy has soured, there has been some positive spinoff for the zoos, which have benefited from the "staycation" trend of people looking for entertainment opportunities closer to home.
Attendance at the Syracuse zoo increased 4 percent to about 345,000 visitors in 2008; the Buffalo Zoo topped $1 million in membership revenues for the first time.
On the Net:
Wildlife Conservation Society: http://www.wcs.org
Association of Zoos and Aquariums: http://www.aza.org
YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vLHGuofPUnLo