Casualties of Cutbacks: The Prospect Park Zoo Could Be the Next to Go

casualties cutbacks
The commissary opens at seven each morning. A long steel table takes up the middle of the rectangular room; daily meal charts are posted above the stove and extra counter space lines the perimeter. On the left wall of the kitchen’s hallway refrigeration units chill fresh food. Each day zookeepers begin their work of making breakfasts before moving onto the rest of the day’s meals. Before shutting down for the day, more food is prepped for the following morning. Since most of the zoo’s animals are vegetarian, says keeper Jaime Oquendo, he chops a lot of kale, carrots and yams. Freshly prepared meals are brought to the “keeper office” to be delivered to the 200 plus mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians housed at the 12-acre Prospect Park Zoo.

If Mayor Bloomberg’s “doomsday budget” passes, Prospect Park zookeepers like Oquendo, 23, will be out of a job and the animals they care for will be out of a home. Fully funded by the City of New York, the zoo has no alternative but to close if its funds are cut. The Queens Zoo will shut down too, leaving New Yorkers with only the Central Park and Bronx Zoos. What will become of the Brooklyn zookeepers, and where, exactly, will the animals go?

“When we first heard, everybody was pretty worried and mad, wondering what the hell was happening,” says Oquendo. But things have settled down, he says, and his colleagues are trying to keep a positive attitude. “A lot of the keepers are more hopeful than before.”

A big reason the outlook has become less grim is that the Wildlife Conservation Society (of which all City zoos are a part) has begun a campaign to get the zoos off the endangered list. Petitions and “Save Our Zoos” buttons are laid out on a large table as patrons walk through the Prospect Park Zoo’s wrought iron gates before banking left or right down its massive stone staircase toward the huge Sea Lion center exhibit.

“I’ve been giving out petitions to everyone I know,” says Oquendo, including his mother. Oquendo’s mom offered to bring petitions to work for parents and teachers to sign. A teacher in Chinatown, she often brings her class to Brooklyn’s only zoo because of its close proximity.

As he wipes down the commissary’s counter before closing it up for the day, Oquendo talks about his long history with the Prospect Park Zoo. At 15 he became an intern with the education department to help teach youngsters about the zoo’s animals. While a veterinary technology major at LaGuardia Community College, Oquendo volunteered for a year and a half at the zoo’s animal clinic until a staff position opened up for a keeper. In October 2003, he celebrates his third anniversary as a full-time staff member.

Other than the basics of feeding and cleaning the animals, and making sure they are healthy, zookeepers are busy with other jobs, too. Besides designing and building the zoo’s smaller exhibits, keepers also have to make sure the animals are enriched. Toys ranging from pet store playthings to cardboard boxes filled with hay and bugs are placed in the animals’ habitat. “If there’s nothing to do in the environment they become, I guess you could say, neurotic,” says Oquendo. Giving the animals things to play with and explore keeps them happy.

Oquendo most enjoys working with the poison dart frogs. “Keepers tend to have an animal they always have in mind,” he says. “It comes with the territory. You become attached.” Because the frogs are kept mostly in isolation, Oquendo spends less time out in the open exhibits. He is working on a new exhibit for his beloved frogs — an opportunity he says is rarer to come by in the larger zoos.

If the Prospect Park Zoo does close, Oquendo and his colleagues will have to start looking for other work and places to re-house the animals.

What will happen next?
A few of the zookeepers are on break in the keeper office lounge, all wearing the unisex uniform of black knee-high rubber boats, light green Prospect Park Zoo oxford shirts and dark green Bermuda shorts adorned with Leatherman tools and walkie-talkies. Prospect Park Zoo Animal Curator Rick Urban — a gregarious Texan with a well-trimmed brown beard — flips through a supply catalog while joking with the keepers. It’s clear that this is a tight-knit group of people.

About half of the dozen keepers at the Prospect Park Zoo have worked there longer than Urban’s three-year tenure. “They’re gonna take it on the chin,” he says of long-time staffers. Urban doubts the Wildlife Conservation Society will be able to absorb any of the Prospect Park Zoo staff. There is a network of accredited zoos around the country, but a new job will likely mean relocation. Still, he says, the keepers have not been as focused on themselves. “One of the main concerns everyone has is the animals.”

Krista Von Ronne says she is most concerned with how the animals will be treated if the zoo closes and they have to be shipped out to new homes. “Ethel is my biggest concern. She is my best friend up there,” Von Ronne says referring to a Cape Baron Goose housed along the zoo’s discovery trail.

The discovery trail is a squiggly oval that begins behind the academic-looking World of Animals building and ends behind its Animal Lifestyles counterpart. After peeping at the indoor exhibits designed for domestic animals like hamsters and fish in the World of Animals, or at the exhibits designed like an animal’s natural habitat (birds, snakes, frogs) in the Animal Lifestyles building, visitors can follow a path to watch Wallabies jump, Red Pandas slowly eat the leafy green vegetation and the Bald Eagle spread his one good wing. The eagle was rescued and nursed back to health after mangling his foot in a trap set for a different animal and then injuring his left wing. He can no longer live in the wild; the Prospect Park Zoo is his home.

Like any other industry, word has spread quickly that the Prospect Park Zoo may not be around much longer; no one will be surprised by a flood of resumes on the fax lines. Keeper Jennifer Skelley says, “Zoo keeping is a pretty competitive field; but once you start working with animals it is hard to not [to work with them].” For the last four years she has worked with a group of baboons that she is concerned may be divided if moved. Skelley says that as primates, they have a higher level of intelligence than other animals and she fears a move will stress the baboons, particularly if they get separated. Because baboons live a group, Urban says, “They’ll have to go as a group.”

“We’re here for the animals whether we close or not,” says Urban. Their work will not end until each animal is placed at one of the 212 accredited zoos across the country. “The animals will be placed in good homes,” he assures his staff.

What local visitors will do if the Prospect Park Zoo closes is another matter. Urban says that of the 250,000 annual guests at the zoo, 50,000 of those are organized school trips. In April and May alone the zoo gets 20,000 school kids. Driving down Flatbush Avenue toward the zoo on a spring day can be “a line of yellow,” says Urban of the school buses waiting for students to return from a class trip. Without a Brooklyn zoo, Urban asks, “Where else are these kids going to go?”

Zoo patrons have expressed shock that Mayor Bloomberg has even considered cutting the borough’s zoo. Questions like, “Where are we going to go?” or declarations of, “It’s the only zoo in Brooklyn!” are being heard in loud waves throughout the community. Urban speculates on the difficulties for Brooklynites to go to the Bronx or Central Park Zoos. “Parents with small kids can’t hike it out to other zoos far away.” Besides, he adds, you can’t beat the price of admission; adults pay $2.50, kids pay 50 cents and children under three years are free. “That’s a cheap date.”

Because the City Council and the Mayor have to fight it out about what will be the casualties of doomsday, Urban says that ultimately, the fate of the Prospect Park Zoo, its staff, and its animals, is “in somebody else’s hands.”

June 2003

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