With summer underway, families are converging upon the panoply of great destinations in Greater Boston. But what should be a major attraction, the Franklin Park Zoo, has long been an underfunded, second-class amenity. Zoo New England, the organization that runs the zoo, does its best with a challenging location and limited resources. But the Franklin Park Zoo still ranks only 96th out of the 194 Boston attractions rated by TripAdvisor, and time and again Beacon Hill budgeters confront an uncomfortable question: How much taxpayer money should the state devote to an institution that is valuable but never quite manages to thrive financially?
The zoo began 101 years ago as a municipal project funded with private philanthropy. In 1908, George Parkman left more than $100 million (in current dollars) to the city for the maintenance of parks, and a chunk of that money went on the zoo. In August 1912, the Globe reported that six “vicious, untrained” bears arrived from Hamburg. The bear pit was one of the early zoo’s big attractions, despite the Globe’s 1913 reporting that “disgruntled” polar bears “persistently refuse the products of civilization.”