Both the city administration and the nonprofit Honolulu Zoo Society need to do more to ensure the longevity of the zoo, particularly providing more stable funding, current and former elected officials insist.
The Honolulu Zoo, near Kapiolani Park, recently lost its accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, tarnishing its reputation and raising the possibility it will have to give up some of its 90 exotic animals on loan.
“If you want a world-class city, you need a world-class zoo,” said former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, now head of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association. “This is a shot across the bow. It sends out a message that we’ve been dilatory and that we haven’t taken our responsibilities seriously. It’s embarrassing. We are the land of aloha and hospitality, and this says we don’t treat our animals very well, they aren’t a priority.”
Officials cite these possible approaches:
>> Raise the fundraising efforts by the Honolulu Zoo Society, which has come to focus more on education and outreach.
Cash contributions to the zoo by its nonprofit arm over each of the past five years equated to an average of just 5 percent of the facility’s operating budget. According to 2011 AZA data, governments typically provide about 47 percent of the operating funds at public zoos, with the majority coming from private fundraising.
>> Seek accreditation from another entity, possibly the Zoological Association of America, or ZAA, whose annual facility membership dues are just $750.
But the AZA designation, which costs the city $17,500 in fees annually, is a gold standard that lets tourists and residents know Honolulu Zoo is among the nation’s best facilities, said City Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents Waikiki and Diamond Head.
“Do we want to be a minimal zoo that doesn’t know if it’s going to be accredited one year to the next,” he said, “or do we want to be a thriving first-rate facility? If we want that, we need a major paradigm shift. The city needs to step up, and the Honolulu Zoo Society needs to restructure its mission. We need to work together to leverage what should be a successful partnership.”
Part of the problem has been a record of yo-yo funding — up one year, down the next — officials say.
State Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana) said a dysfunctional relationship between the zoo, which has gone through five directors in the last six years, and the Honolulu Zoo Society contributed to the zoo’s financial and maintenance problems. The city must stop giving more money and resources to the zoo the year before an accreditation inspection and then cutting the budget afterward, he said.
Brower also questions why the city, which cannot raise funds on its own, has allowed its nonprofit arm to prioritize education and outreach over fundraising.
“There is not a long-term sustainability plan for the zoo,” he said. “The zoo is given only enough resources to ‘pass the test.’”
Although the zoo society collects about $500,000 in membership dues annually, Brower said the money mostly goes toward the salaries of its 10 or so employees.
Jennifer Barrett, who has served as zoo society executive director for about six months, said the nonprofit spent 10 percent of its fiscal year income on zoo support in 2011 and 2012. It spent 13 percent in fiscal 2013 and upped it to 21 percent in fiscal 2014 and 25 percent in fiscal 2015.
Brower said, “On the surface it appears they should be giving the zoo more financial support. If they can’t afford to, it may be a good idea for them to re-evaluate their budget and figure out where the pukas are. I would like to see a neutral third party sit down with the two parties and address the causes of their dysfunction as a first step.”
Barrett said the society doesn’t have a dedicated fundraising director.
According to the society’s 2015 annual report released to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday, the society relied primarily on individual contributions and membership sales to raise revenues, which mostly went into educational programs, outreach and its own administrative costs.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell said AZA made it clear that the zoo needs more financial support from both the city and the zoo society.
“When the (AZA inspectors) came out here, they said both of us, both the government and the zoo society, have to be more focused on providing money for the zoo operation,” he said. “As far as the zoo society, they’ve committed to do that, and I’ve committed to do that.”
The city’s fiscal year 2017 budget, which is still in negotiations, also proposes to raise Honolulu Zoo’s operating budget 12.7 per-cent to $6.81 million from the prior year’s $6.04 million.
According to a Star-Advertiser analysis, the zoo operating budget was cut during Mayor Peter Carlisle’s administration and was increased only slightly during each of Caldwell’s first three fiscal years.
George D. Szigeti, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said the current zoo director, Baird Fleming, who was appointed about a year ago, already has worked with staff to make improvements.
“The zoo is going in the right direction, and care for the animals is superb and that matters most of all,” Szigeti said. “Consistent funding was cited as an issue of concern, but in fairness to the mayor and City Council, they are dealing with urgent costly issues like homelessness that are stretching county resources. If AZA feels the zoo isn’t getting enough county funding, it’s likely because those funds are being expended on higher-priority issues involving human lives.”
During his visits to the zoo with his young daughter, Ozawa said, he noticed that it hasn’t kept up with technology, and quite a few exhibits are closed.
As a result of these issues and others, zoo attendance also has dropped 11.3 per-cent over the past four years. Last year 592,780 visitors came to the zoo, down 2.27 percent from the prior year’s 606,566 visitors.
“Over the last few years, I’ve hesitated to tell visitors to go to the zoo,” Hannemann said.
Manuel Mollinedo, a former zoo director, said he warned elected officials that it takes money to maintain a zoo to AZA standards. When Honolulu applied for reaccreditation in March 2011, the zoo was placed on “deferral” status by AZA, which cited long delays in completing an elephant enclosure.
After the new 1.5-acre elephant exhibit was completed that December, AZA announced in April 2012 that full accreditation would be restored until 2016.
“I kept telling them … we’ve got a lot to do as far as catching up, and they thought I was crying wolf,” he said.
Mollinedo said foot-dragging by the Department of Facility Maintenance with zoo improvements caused costly delays. He also criticized the hiring of the two directors after him because neither had actual zoo experience.
Mollinedo said the hiring of Fleming, the longtime deputy, as the current director, was a good move but came too late.
Mollinedo said the loss of AZA accreditation could prevent the zoo from obtaining foundation grants.
But Honolulu could seek accreditation through another program like the ZAA, said Patti Clark, executive director of the Austin Zoo in Texas.
“I’m sure it’s embarrassing that the Honolulu Zoo no longer has those credentials that they worked so hard to acquire and maintain,” said Clark said by telephone. “But there are all kinds of wonderfully run animal facilities that don’t fit in with AZA.”
Clark, whose own zoo came back from a financial crisis, said ZAA accred-itation fits with the Austin Zoo’s rescue mission.
ZAA has 64 accredited members, eight of which have dual accreditation through the AZA, Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums or the Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria, said Alan Sironen, a member of the ZAA board of directors.
Many popular facilities including the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Long Island Aquarium, the Waikiki Aquarium, Sea Life Park Hawaii and the Hilo-based Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens don’t have AZA accreditation. AZA spokesman Rob Vernon said only 10 percent of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are AZA accredited.
Meanwhile, Ozawa said he and Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi this year will introduce a bill to build a three-story zoo parking structure, which would provide ease of access and more funding opportunities. Ozawa said he started a zoo task force last year to explore zoo restructuring.
He and Honolulu Councilwoman Kymberly Pine also introduced a bill to create a pathway for zoo sponsorships. That legislation went into effect about a year ago, but Ozawa said the administration has yet to write rules that would allow for implementation.
“The administration needs to quit dragging its feet,” he said.