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Why doesn’t Boston have a better zoo?

How learning from past mistakes and other cities could make Boston a zootopia!

Siv Tang, a lead zookeeper at Franklin Park Zoo, gently uses a target stick to train a two-toed sloth.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Siv Tang, a lead zookeeper at Franklin Park Zoo, gently uses a target stick to train a two-toed sloth.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Little Joe is a big draw for Franklin Park Zoo.

In the Long Crouch Woods a few hundred feet outside Franklin Park Zoo, a fence studded with twisted prongs encloses a pit with a cluster of rocks clumped around a tree trunk. It looks like some forgotten gladiator’s pen.

The pit, called the Raccoon Tree, once housed the zoo’s raccoons. Go a bit closer to the corner of Seaver Street and Blue Hill Avenue and you’ll see the concrete steps leading up to the bear dens, the zoo’s first complete exhibit. These were set among rocks and trees meant to replicate as best they could the bears’ natural environment. It was a concept in zoo design far ahead of its time, and the Boston Globe reporter who covered the opening in 1912 noted that “the bear dens are declared to be the finest in the world, at least from the standpoint of those who don’t have to live in them.” Today, you might see someone killing time by scaling the city seal and heraldic bruins along the back of what was den number two, still there after all these years.

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The newspaper gushed that “Boston is destined to have the most wonderful park in the world.” Now, 105 years later, those words seem almost sad.

Which is not to say the zoo is terrible. “I get compliments all the time about the zoo,” says John Linehan, the Canton native who is president and CEO of Zoo New England, which operates the Franklin Park Zoo and Stoneham’s Stone Zoo. “It frustrates me. I know it’s not a great zoo yet.”

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The question is why? Was a century not enough time? After all, Boston overflows with great cultural institutions, some much younger than the zoos. The Institute of Contemporary Art started in 1936 as the Boston outpost of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, then split off from MoMA and shot to prominence when it adopted its current moniker in 1948. Today it is a landmark feature of Boston’s burgeoning waterfront. Boston Ballet was founded in 1963; it was the first American ballet company to appear in Communist China and serves as an important venue for premieres. Or how about the New England Aquarium? Opened in 1969, its Giant Ocean Tank was once the largest in the world, and it remains a global leader in oceanographic research. Which institutions are Bostonians more proud of — and more likely to send their visitors to: the aquarium or the zoo? The Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Boston Children’s Museum all befit the nation’s 10th largest metropolitan area. But Boston’s zoo wouldn’t make anybody’s top 10 list, while zoos in San Diego, Omaha, St. Louis, Seattle, even Toledo, Ohio, are fixtures.

“How strange it is that with Boston’s cultural institutions mostly at the top of their areas, it has never had a zoo anywhere near the class of the MFA or the library or the symphony,” says Jeffrey Hyson, an assistant professor of history of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia who studies zoos’ place in culture.

There are some perfectly understandable reasons for it, and we’ve gathered a few ideas from experts that could help improve things. But first, a little history lesson.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Zoo New England director John Linehan says hello to Beau the giraffe.

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Those forlorn former raccoon and bear homes were supposed to be part of a great collection of animals in the Long Crouch Woods, connected to what is today’s Franklin Park Zoo, then a vast expanse with exhibit halls called The Greeting. But nothing more was built in the woods. That’s because the original zoo was a pet project of John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald during his second stint as mayor of Boston from 1910 to 1914. When he lost to James Michael Curley, the zoo was swept up in Curley’s zeal to overturn what he called Fitzgerald’s corruption.

Fitzgerald had started the zoo with money from a bequest to the city, and the money might not have been meant for a zoo. But Fitzgerald made sure top-notch, experienced conservationists and landscape architects were involved in its design and operation. Curley starved it of cash and stuffed it with patronage jobs and attacked a Brahmin-backed Boston Zoological Society for taking over a people’s institution, thus scaring off important sources of private support. Since Curley served four terms as Boston mayor and one as Massachusetts governor between 1914 and 1950, the zoo was effectively stunted for more than 35 years.

“This zoo, if built as planned, would have given us a pretty good zoo and certainly a state-of-the-art zoo” in its day, says Rory Browne, a zoo historian based at Boston College and a member of Zoo New England’s board of directors.

Instead, it emerged piecemeal. It got elephants in 1914, thanks to a campaign by The Boston Post, which paraded them from South Station all the way to Franklin Park, where a building had to be constructed hastily to house them. Browne says Curley declined to take any Works Progress Administration money during the Great Depression, a source of support for zoos elsewhere. Curley created his own jobs program during the Depression and started, but never finished, an antelope house on a hill behind the warthogs. The zoo further struggled after World War II as Boston went into economic decline.

The zoo didn’t even have a perimeter fence until 1958, when the city asked the Commonwealth to run the facility. The state merged Franklin Park Zoo with what was then Middlesex Fells Zoo, 14 miles to the north in Stoneham. The state hired prominent zoologist Walter D. Stone to run the two zoos, and he brought renewed energy before his death in 1968, after which the Middlesex Fells Zoo was renamed for him.

But state management could not protect the zoos from budget cuts in tight times. In the late 1970s, a major redesign was proposed featuring four vast new exhibit halls at Franklin Park. But even then, only one of those exhibits was ever built — the Tropical Forest, which opened in 1989.

‘Watch this,” John Linehan says as he walks up to the glass at the gorilla exhibit at the Tropical Forest. Okie, a 22-year-old male gorilla, storms up to Linehan and pounds on the glass. The Zoo New England CEO doesn’t flinch. Linehan knows Okie’s just at that age where he wants to assert himself. “He knows I’m the boss,” he says.

Arctic foxes, a brilliant white in winter, are molting as they rest on a hot, humid day at Stone Zoo.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Arctic foxes, a brilliant white in winter, are molting as they rest on a hot, humid day at Stone Zoo.

Being boss was not Linehan’s plan in 1980, when he took a temporary job in the zoo’s bird cages after graduating from the University of Maine with a degree in wildlife management. Linehan liked going to the zoo as a kid growing up in Canton, but envisioned himself working not at a zoo but in the field. He went to Franklin Park expecting to stay no more than six months before heading off to Africa or Alaska. “I thought the zoo was a joke,” he says. “The thing that kept me here was the ability to make a difference.” That started with improving animals’ basic living quarters. The 1980s saw many zoos expand their educational and conservation efforts, leading to more naturalistic environments for animals. The trend meshed well with Linehan’s interests.

He was still at the Franklin Park Zoo in February 1984 when it made an infamous Parade magazine list of the country’s 10 worst zoos. Other big-city zoos on the list — Oakland, California, Atlanta, and Brooklyn — sought to improve. The Brooklyn Zoo and New York’s other borough zoos were eventually brought under the Wildlife Conservation Society, which already ran the Bronx Zoo, considered then and now among the best in the world. The Oakland Zoo added a series of naturalistic habitats, especially for its elephants. The biggest changes happened in Atlanta, where “the zoo was a national disgrace,” says Terry Maple, a psychology professor specializing in animal behavior at Georgia Tech who was hired to help save the zoo or close it.

Atlanta’s major corporations and its citizenry, led by then mayor Andrew Young, rallied around the zoo. A $17 million bond was passed, and a massive fund-raising campaign begun. The zoo was partially privatized in a model now common for zoos, meaning the land and its facilities were owned by the government but the zoo was operated by a nonprofit, privately run organization. In less than five years, Atlanta was well on its way to having a world-class zoo. In 2014, Zoo Atlanta’s operating budget stood at almost $19 million, Oakland’s at $15 million, and Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo’s at $23 million. Meanwhile, Zoo New England operated two zoos on $13 million.

Linehan acknowledges Franklin Park has not risen as far as those zoos. But it was never as dismal as Atlanta’s in 1984, either. “We’d been languishing for decades. There were almost no animals,” he says.

Or facilities. At the time of the Parade story, Richard G. Naegeli, who ran the Boston zoo for the Metropolitan District Commission, noted that the elephant and lion houses had been torn down and the bear den closed. The children’s zoo was under construction and opened a few months later. The Tropical Forest was a construction site and was slated to open in 18 to 24 months (it needed five more years).

Linehan calls the 1970s and 1980s, when few people came to the zoo in Boston, a lost generation of visitors. He thinks this made it harder for Zoo New England to get involvement and support from local foundations, civic groups, and corporations.

Things got better at Franklin Park, but by 1991 the state faced a budget crisis. Stone Zoo was closed for 18 months. That closure cleared the way for a long-stalled proposal from state Senator Richard Tisei and others to hand zoo management over to a private organization, which became Zoo New England.

Zoo New England’s climb to respectability has had its steep sections, including the issue du jour: Stone Zoo must fix problems by September or it lose accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which sets zoo standards. Linehan has corrected many of the issues, but he needs about $3 million to renovate some of Stone’s older facilities. The state has $16 million remaining from a $30 million bond passed in 2008 for zoo capital projects, but so far has not released money to the zoo.

Let’s be clear: We will never see our own version of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Boston doesn’t have 1,800 acres available; all of Franklin Park comprises less than 500 acres, and the zoo takes up 72 acres. But Franklin Park Zoo doesn’t need to get a lot bigger to become a lot better. Atlanta and Philadelphia have terrific zoos sitting on roughly 40 acres. And Franklin Park Zoo does have space to expand.

Linehan, who became president and CEO of Zoo New England in 2002, wears his love for the zoo on his sleeve, and his chest, and his head — his typical outfit includes a Zoo New England hat and shirt; for important meetings, he’ll don an animal-themed tie. He’s been successful in many small ways. He’s whittled the state’s contribution to Zoo New England’s budget to about 40 percent (it had once been upward of 70 percent), meaning the zoos’ survival is no longer in question every time the state has a budget crisis. The Tropical Forest was revamped in 2007, in part to thwart Little Joe, the clever and popular gorilla who twice escaped in 2003, injuring two people the second time. Franklin Park opened the Aussie Aviary in 2010, letting zoogoers walk among the birds and even feed them. Visitors can, for a fee, get eye to eye with giraffes or ride a camel. At Stone Zoo, eagles and owls and other birds swoop over audience members’ heads at special shows. Conservation programs have helped reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to the wild and are helping save the Panamanian golden tree frog.

Black-Tailed prairie dogs cluster at Franklin Park Zoo.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Black-Tailed prairie dogs cluster at Franklin Park Zoo.

A revamped, and larger, board freed from state control has helped boost fund-raising. It’s no coincidence that Zoo New England finished a $6.6 million capital campaign this year that included its first million-dollar gift from a single person.

That capital will go to build Nature’s Neighborhoods, a complete remaking of the children’s zoo. The current barn and domestic animal exhibit will be untouched, but a multipurpose building near the main entrance on Franklin Park Road will be replaced, and the prairie dogs, the red panda exhibit, and the current wetlands exhibit will be redone. Visitors will be able to sit in a simulated eagle’s aerie and then slide down, climb up fake bamboo across from the new red panda exhibit, and peer at sloths hanging overhead.

Nature’s Neighborhoods is the kind of signature project that should boost the zoo, says Jeffrey Bonner, chief executive of the St. Louis Zoo. “That sounds to me like a phenomenal thing to do,” he says. “I wish we could do that. We’re kind of out of space.”

Bonner thinks Zoo New England is poised to jump to a new level. “You’ve got talented people there. John’s a remarkable man. There’s probably the intellectual and creative force there to [build a great zoo]. You all are missing the resources, that’s all.”

So if Boston is poised for a zoo renaissance, what will it take to get there? Here are five recommendations, based on conversations with leading zoo officials locally and around the country, as well as people who study the role of zoos in cities. They range from doable to pie in the sky (see NUMBER ONE below), all things considered.

1. Pass a tax.

Done choking? OK, then note: Boston’s zoos are chronically underfunded. “I’ve looked at the numbers of what’s been invested in the Boston zoos,” says Lee Ehmke, president of the Minnesota Zoo, and they pale “in comparison to just about any major metro area zoo I can think of.” (Ehmke will leave Minnesota this month to head up the larger Houston Zoo.) A tax could get Zoo New England’s budget out of the hands of politicians forever.

Good luck with that, says Rick Biddle, former chief operating officer of the Philadelphia Zoo and now vice president at Schultz & Williams, a consultancy that works with zoos and aquariums nationwide. He says there would be plenty of political wrangling in a city like Boston, which has a vast number of cultural institutions that would want a cut of any tax. “We haven’t seen many cultural tax initiatives like this east of the Mississippi,” Biddle says. “Absolutely they work. But you need to have the political and community leadership in place to get them passed. A large percentage of cultural organizations are underfunded and undercapitalized. This is not unique to just Zoo New England.”

Yes, the state is trying to close a $1.8 billion budget gap, and no one in Massachusetts feels undertaxed. But Kansas City’s zoo got a sales tax passed in the teeth of the Great Recession, giving it an eighth of a cent on purchases in two counties. The zoo gets as much as $13 million a year from it, the entire budget of Zoo New England. Since the tax passed, Kansas City has added a $15 million penguin exhibit, spent $6 million updating its orangutan exhibit, and added a 100-seat restaurant as well as made a number of behind-the-scenes improvements. Denver has a similar cultural tax supporting its zoo and some other institutions, and Oklahoma City has a dedicated sales tax for its zoo. The St. Louis Zoo is great — and free — in part because it was given a piece of the property tax back in 1916. Meanwhile, admission at Franklin Park Zoo is $20, $13 for children ages 2 to 12; the Stone Zoo is $16 and $12.

2. Improve the two-zoo strategy.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Stone Zoo’s Caribbean flamingo feeds a baby.

Stone Zoo’s aging facilities have put it at risk of losing its accreditation. Some suggest shutting it down and focusing on Franklin Park. But when Stone Zoo closed temporarily in 1991, it did not lead to an influx of visitors to Franklin Park. Plus, Stone draws a much higher percentage of visitors than its portion of the budget. Metropolitan areas can support multiple zoos. New York has one in each borough while Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Philadelphia all have multiple zoos. The Boston area supports at least five institutions with significant live-animal attractions: Franklin Park, Stone, Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon, Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, and the Museum of Science, which has about 120 creatures, not to mention the aquarium. Plus, the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence is as short a drive from Boston as Southwick’s Zoo. John Linehan, Zoo New England CEO, thinks Stone Zoo “is an asset; it will touch many more people than just Franklin Park, and many of them won’t come into the city.” Linehan is orienting Stone Zoo around families with young children. It’s already an intimate zoo where it’s easy to get near the animals. If he had the money, he’d replace the Windows to the Wild building and improve the exhibit spaces.

3. Get a better front door and get social.

John Tlumacki(/Globe Staff

The underwhelming front entrance at Franklin Park Zoo.

Franklin Park Zoo’s entrance is dull; Stone Zoo’s takes you first past a restroom trailer. Both are squandered opportunities to entice and excite visitors. There are also too many chain-link fences; they helped the zoos cheaply develop exhibits in the dire 1990s, but they’re ugly and anything but natural. Linehan hates them but doesn’t have the money to create more naturalistic exhibits. Cosmetic upgrades would make people feel better about the zoos, increasing the likelihood that they’d be back and that they’d tell their friends.

A better marketing campaign wouldn’t hurt, either. Did you know the zoo is touting “zoofies,” selfies taken at the zoo? Probably not. That’s because of an underwhelming social media and Web presence. Zoo New England has long had zero marketing budget. Even in the freefest that is social media, Franklin Park Zoo cracks just 20,000 likes on Facebook. Roger Williams has 49,000, San Francisco 74,000, Minnesota Zoo 99,000, Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo 119,000, Toledo — Toledo! — 140,000, Zoo Atlanta 148,000, and the San Diego Zoo 449,000. One viral video on social media can build buzz. Buzz can bring eyeballs. Eyeballs can bring visitors.

4. Elephants, rhinos, and more. oh, my!

Charismatic megafauna draw crowds and make important points about conservation; Lee Ehmke sees them as a must-have. Boston has gorillas, giraffes, and lions and some other big cats. But following up Franklin Park Zoo’s Nature’s Neighborhoods with a new exhibition dedicated to a major animal would engage more people with the zoo. Elephants are about as charismatic as you can get in the animal world, but keeping them in captivity is controversial. They need a lot of space and are very expensive — Buttonwood Park Zoo’s two Asian female elephants cost about $300,000 a year in upkeep. Now, at minimum, zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums need three females (or the space to hold three females), two males, or at least some variety of genders. Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo is building a new exhibition at a cost of $10.6 million that will house six African elephants and be the first in the world to put zoo visitors in boats in the same water the elephants will use. Elephants aren’t cold weather animals, though. While there may be no elephants left in the wild in a decade and zoos can play an important role in keeping species alive, they might not work for Boston.

Linehan himself would prefer rhinos. These are also critically endangered, but rhinos could be added to the existing zoo; elephants would require expanding beyond its current footprint. In fact, why couldn’t Asian rhinos be the centerpiece of a new Asian exhibition, underscoring Boston and America’s deepening links with Asia and perhaps tying into the philanthropic interests of some of the major Asian business figures setting up shop in the city?

5. Show it the love.

Zoos create complicated feelings; the animals are amazing, but they’re also not living in the wild. That can sour people on zoos. But Irus Braverman, author of the forthcoming book Wild Life: The Institution of Nature, notes that what used to be wild is now managed. Scientists suggest that we live in an age of mass extinction, and zoos have been positioning themselves as bastions of conservation. Cities like New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Houston have impressive cultural institutions, great sports teams, and better zoos than Boston. These cities have philanthropists, companies, and local foundations that lavish money on their zoos. Millions of people go to their zoos every year. Why does this matter? Boston has no giant pandas, even though it has historic ties with China, while the Memphis Zoo is one of four US zoos that have giant pandas. That’s because FedEx executives made it their business to ensure the Memphis Zoo got them. Ford Motor Co. was a big reason Zoo Atlanta was revitalized. Boston is flush with successful tech and biotech companies and rich investors. Would we really cringe at the Biogen Rhino Exhibit or the Raytheon Zoo Zipline? We like culture, and we give lots of money for it. The Museum of Fine Arts raised $504 million and built a new wing, and a $200 million fund-raising campaign is underway now. We like science, too: The Museum of Science just pulled in $284 million for renovations and additions. Can we not do better than $6.6 million in fund-raising for the zoo?

One last point that dovetails with another thing we love to complain about: transit. Let’s say we do rally behind the zoos and they become great, really great, a true destination for residents and visitors. We have a transportation issue. Other than a few buses, there is no swift and easy way to reach either Franklin Park or Stone Zoo on public transit. Could we not see a Zoo Express (or the JetBlue Zoo Express!) from the Fairmount Line’s Four Corners/Geneva Avenue Station or from the Orange Line in Jamaica Plain? Or maybe tap into the transit analytics expertise at Bridj, a local shared-ride startup, to solve the problem. That’s how to connect new-world technology with old-world Boston, and that’s an idea worth roaring about.

Michael Fitzgerald is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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