Why Does the Potter Park Zoo Need More Millage?

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Friday, February 28, 2020, 9:00 am
Chris Gray

Jaali, born at Potter Park Zoo last year, is one of 54 black rhinos in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. There are about 5,000 black rhinos remaining in the wild, according to recent data. (Photos by Kaiti Chritz, Potter Park Zoo)

Potter Park Zoo may be located in Lansing, but since a 2006 millage passed by Ingham County voters, the zoological park has been a zoo for all county residents, including those who live in East Lansing.

Ingham County residents get discounted parking and admission, including free entry on Mondays before noon. The existing millage provides operational expenses, but Potter Park is now asking on the March 10 ballot for an additional 0.5 mills. If passed, that is expected to raise $3.84 million in property tax revenue its first year to pay for infrastructure projects, more than doubling the revenue the zoo receives from county property owners.

East Lansing Info recently interviewed Amy Morris-Hall, the executive director of the Potter Park Zoological Society, and this is what she had to tell us about plans for the zoo and other zoo news.

I’ll just start from the top. What do you plan to do with the new millage that you’re asking of voters?

So we’ve had a millage since 2006. And that millage has done a really good job of helping us manage zoo operations, but this year we’ve reached our 100th year — this is our centennial, and our infrastructure is really outdated. So what we’d like to do with the funding if we get is to update our outdated infrastructure.

One of the first things that we have on our list is replacing the paths in the zoo. We want to be inclusive to all and our paths are in really poor condition. Our primary guests are families with young children, often in strollers and wagons. We also have people come through in wheelchairs and walkers, and even if you’re just walking on the path there are many places where you can catch your toe or trip and replacing the path is a big priority.

Our feline-primate building was built in 1930 and it has a heating system that needs to be replaced. Our small moat exhibits are outdated and they need to be eliminated to meet our standards for accreditation. We’re accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

What are the small moat exhibits? What is outdated about them?

Our small moat exhibits [are] where we keep small carnivores like mongoose and meerkats, those kind of animals. Those need to be eliminated and animals need to be moved to other more appropriate exhibits at the zoo. The other thing on our list is our penguin exhibit pools are over thirty years old and they need major repairs.

The discovery center where we hold classes for young people and host meetings has an outdated electrical system and the heating and cooling needs a major renovation. So those are some of the things on our list. What we’ve done is we wrote a strategic plan, we have an implementation plan for that strategic plan and an action plan that outlines all the different things that we need to be taken care of at the zoo, and we’re trying to come up with a strategic plan to making sure our infrastructure at the zoo is up-to-date and our guests at the zoo have the best experience possible. So this funding would help us to do that.

What happens if the ballot measure fails?

If we don’t get the increase, things will have to go a lot more slowly, and we do have some critical needs that are required by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums so we’re going to have to find some other way to get the funding to keep our accreditation current.

Such as the mongoose exhibit?

We have to eliminate that no matter what, so we’ll have to find some other way to do that. If we don’t pass this, it is a threat to our accreditation.

A red panda munches on some greenery at Potter Park Zoo.

What makes Potter Park Zoo special in Michigan or elsewhere?

I think Potter Park zoo is very focused on our conservation efforts. I’m not saying the other zoos aren’t, but we consider our mission to inspire people to conserve animals and the natural world, whether that’s environments in other countries or right in their backyard. We have taken steps with education programming that invites people into the zoo to learn about why animals are important, and we also do a tremendous amount of outreach.

For example, we have a program called Zoo in Your Neighborhood. We take animals into communities, with partner relationships with public libraries and community centers. We take animals into those facilities and teach guests about what we do and about conservation and why conservation is so important.

We also offer free passes at those locations so people can check them out like you would a library book and come visit the zoos. That program actually won a top award for diversity and inclusion from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums this year. We do reach out to our community and we are a valued community asset. Our 2016 millage passed by 76 percent of the vote and we’ve been very fortunate.

How do zoos today reconcile keeping animals in captivity in general, and at Potter Park Zoo how does that reconcile with its mission?

Our top priority is animal welfare and the top criteria for any of the animals that we house. That’s not just ensuring that animals have a decent quality of life. We want to make sure that they have the opportunity to demonstrate behaviors, and be in groupings, that are natural and something that would simulate how they would live in the wild.

We believe that having these animals here allows us to touch people in a different way. There is research that shows evidence that people connect with animals and if we can have our animals be ambassadors for their species in the wild and inspire people to care about those species, I feel like that’s a very important thing to do.

What do you have planned for the meerkats and the mongoose that would allow those animals to have a more natural experience?

I’m not certain of that. We have an animal management team that makes decisions like that and it includes our veterinarians, our keepers and our experts at the zoo who make decisions about animals and what is best for them and what behaviors should they be demonstrating and what accommodations need to be made for them and those decisions have not been made yet.

What’s the deficit right now?

The deficit right now is that AZA — the Association of Zoos and Aquariums — considers the moat-type exhibit as representative of a bygone era of zoological institutions. In any zoo, not just in our zoo, they don’t want animals in moat-type exhibits anymore. Part of that is probably because as you’re looking at the animals, you’re looking down on them. Maybe not an ideal situation for those animals.

Also our moats are really, really old. I think they were built in the forties [1940s]. The backside of the moat areas where the zookeepers work, they’re really difficult to navigate and not an ideal circumstance at all for our keepers and how they’re handling animals and providing care.

Jaali belongs to an East African species of black rhinos, of which there are only about 5,000 black rhinos remaining in the wild.

How special or unusual was the birth of the baby rhino last year?

He’s one of only 54 black rhinos in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. There are only about 5,000 black rhinos remaining in the wild. So his birth was huge for Potter Park Zoo and the Lansing community. It’s unbelievable the amount of attention we’ve received from this, from having Jaali be born here.

They’re an African species. There are different rhino species. We have black rhinos. There are four black rhino subspecies and what we have is eastern.

What animals can be viewed at Potter Park Zoo in the wintertime?

Anything North American, so we have Arctic Fox. We have North American river otters. We have bald eagles. We have gray wolves, and they are all out, all of the time. Our Amur tigers are a species that likes the cold weather, so you can see our Amur tigers. You can see our red panda. They enjoy the cold weather. You can see our lions, but they typically don’t like to go outside. You can see them from the inside, but there is viewing of the lions in the wintertime.

I’m walking around the zoo in my mind, trying to think of what else you can see. Depending on the day, in a day like today, where the sun comes out, even some of the species that are more warm-weather species, would be out on exhibit or at least would have the option of going outdoors. We like to give our animals choice and control in regards to whether they want to be out in the weather or not. And so a lot of times, we’ll have doors open, but they’re going to choose what they’re going to choose.

Typically, the lions would choose to stay in because they like it warm and they’re African. Rhinos are in right now. They don’t go out until it’s around 50 degrees and the baby rhino won’t go out. He’s going to stay in where it’s warm while he’s growing. Our penguins are out and you can see them in the winter. Our camels are out and you can see them in the winter and we have of course all of our birds and reptiles in our bird-and-reptile house. You can see them, because it’s indoors. And our spider monkeys and mandrill are in our feline-primate building and you can see them because it’s indoors. They typically don’t go outside unless it’s really, really nice.

A North American river otter pokes his head out of the water at Potter Park Zoo.

How soon would you be able to start making improvements if the measure passes?

It ends up the funding wouldn’t come through until 2021 and we would write our budget with that funding in mind and our work on the zoo infrastructure would start in 2021.

How long would it take to complete your top priorities? Could you get them done in one year or is it ongoing?

It’s pretty much never-ending. If you’re going to take care of infrastructure, you don’t do it in a day, and you don’t do it in a year. You have a plan of action to continue maintaining it. Things like our paths, we have a plan to do that over four years so we would do it in stages so we could take care of other needs. Taking care of our dated infrastructure is not a process that will end.

How long would the levy last?

It’ll be a five-year and then after that we’ll go for it as a renewal.

So in 2025 this will appear again?

Yeah, it’ll be 2025.

What’s the most expensive repair on the list?

I would say the paths. We estimated costs. We don’t go out and get bids on projects because we don’t have the funding. Of all the costs, other than anything that would be a new build, the paths are going to be very expensive and I can’t give you an exact number at this point but it’s a costly project.

We’ve made a lot of changes and improvements, and we’ve been very responsible with the funding we get from the community and our donations and from our parking and our gift shop and our restaurant. We have cut where we can cut. We have tried to manage our money in the best we can and you’ll see there are a lot of improvements that were within our budget but what we’re seeing is that we have projects and need that go beyond that.

Is there a big new exhibit planned or any plan to bring new species in?

No, that’s not part of this at all. We’ve got different smaller species we may bring in, but that’s not the reason for this. The reason is to improve the infrastructure and make sure we provide the best care for the animals that are already here.

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