Striving To Keep A Small Zoo Alive

Posted: April 16, 1989

SCRANTON — Pictures in a scrapbook are all that zookeeper George Lowry has left of most of the animals that once delighted children at the Nay Aug Park Zoo.

Gone is the tenacious tiger named after Harry Truman. Lowry had raised Harry from an infant, even taking the cub home to nurse it from a bottle at 3 a.m.

Gone, too, are the chimps, the llamas, the yaks and the lions that he treated with all the care and affection accorded to house pets.

The stock of wild animals at the Nay Aug Park Zoo has been dwindling over three years while zoo officials try to determine what kind of zoo they want - and can afford - to be.

And after some hunter - police say this was no sportsman - crept into the tiny zoo one night last month and killed a white-tailed deer named Bambi, the city-county Zoo Authority decided to ship out almost all the animals at the turn-of-the-century zoo until a new one can be built.

In another week or two, only Toni the arthritic elephant and two common black bears that no other zoo wants will be left in what has been called one of the 10 worst zoos in the country.

The slaying of Bambi and the exodus of animals just mark the lowest point on a long road of decline.

The sorry state of Nay Aug Park Zoo, one of only four public zoos in the state, is pitting people who say they love animals and want to build a bigger, better zoo, against people who say they love animals and they shouldn't be kept in a zoo at all for the mere entertainment of humans.

"We're not going to have a world-class zoo, but it's going to be a jewel of a zoo," said Christine Oliver, chairwoman of the Zoo Authority. "Even if we only have 20 animals, they'll all be in good, clean surroundings."

Others believe even the best zoo can't compensate for taking wild animals out of their natural environments.

"Maybe there's no need for every little community to have a menagerie," said Nancy Payton, vice president of the International Society for Animal Rights, as she waved a list of licensed animal exhibitors in Pennsylvania, ranging from Zoo America in Hershey to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and the Twin Kiss Drive-In in Waynesboro.

"These animals are being imprisoned for no cause other than so somebody can make money off them," she said.

The one thing both sides agree on, however, is that Nay Aug Park Zoo has been neglected for decades and is totally inadequate for both the needs of the animals and the desires of the people who come to see them.

"Things are wrong here, there's no doubt about it," said C. Jerry Wallace, who was hired away from the Toledo Zoo in February to run Nay Aug Park Zoo and oversee construction of a new zoo during the next two years.

To be sure, the zoo with its seven indoor and two outdoor cages has been declining for so long that the only ones who don't notice are small children. They have no memory of the days when as many as 170 animals were on view. So even today when fewer than 20 animals remain, the children are so enamored of the exhibits that they don't seem to notice the peeling paint, the hissing radiators and the twisted springs on the swinging doors.

Still, it hurt when a recent Parade magazine poll of zoo professionals and Humane Society members included Nay Aug Park Zoo among the 10 worst zoos in the country. Maybe the zoo's single building is one of the 10 worst, officials acknowledge, but the animals are well-groomed and their cages cleaned immaculate two times a day.

"If you pick an animal from any zoo in the 10 best list, and compare it to any animal here, you'll see we're just as good if not better," said Lowry, who has tended animals at the zoo for 25 years. "If we had been critiqued by architects, I could understand it. But when it comes to the animals, in my heart I know we're not even close to being the worst in the state, much less the country."

The 72-year-old zoo has always had trouble getting enough money to do much more than feed the animals on a budget that this year is just $150,000.

Until last December, operations were in the hands of the Zoological Society. Yellowed newspaper clippings show men in tuxedos and coiffed women - some of them with furs thrown over their shoulders - attending cocktail parties and Mardi Gras fetes to raise money for the little zoo.

Five years ago, however, the zoo was so financially strapped that the Zoological Society decided to start selling its exotic animals such as lions and tigers and concentrate on North American species.

Even that tactic failed to reverse the zoo's financial straits, its deteriorating condition or its declining attendance.

"More people would be there, but they're disgusted at what it has become," said the Zoo Authority's Oliver. "They grew up with it, and want it to stay open, but not in its current condition."

So three years ago, the Zoological Society decided to build a new zoo. It took until December, however, for the city and county to appoint a Zoo Authority and two more months to hire Wallace as zoo director. An architect is now being sought.

Wallace had planned to keep the handful of goats, bison, monkeys and skunks on view until a new zoo is built, scheduled for completion by the spring of 1991.

The deerslayer changed that.

When Lowry came to work the morning of March 30, he found a pile of deer intestines in a corner of the outdoor cage where Bambi was kept behind an 8- foot fence topped by three strands of barbed wire. Blood trails showed that Bambi had been dragged over the fence and away. The young buck's hide was later found a few blocks away, with one hole caused either by a bullet or an arrow.

Bambi's slaying outraged the community. More than $4,000 in reward money was raised for information leading to Bambi's killer. To date, no killer has been found, and both the city police and the state Game Commission have been called in to investigate.

"It's a priority, to a certain extent, but not a major priority," said Police Chief Mike Balcrius.

Many of the animals already had been shipped out before Bambi was killed, but the pace accelerated after the Zoo Authority said it could not afford a perimeter fence as the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered for the animals' protection after Bambi was killed.

"Things just kept going downhill and downhill," said Wallace, "so we had to get rid of more animals. But I don't want to close it completely. I don't want anyone to say it ever closed."

What Wallace has in mind for the future is a new "state-of-the-art" zoo - a zoo that may have more razzle dazzle technology than animals. One possibility is to use light to show how fast a cheetah can run compared with a turtle.

"We're like every other business," said Wallace. "We have to be as close to profitable as we can. And we have to entertain people to get them here. Once we get them here, then we can educate them."

Animal welfare activists such as Payton would like to revolutionize zoos, redefining their nature and function. To that end, she religiously attends Zoo Authority meetings and visits the zoo, suggesting changes.

"What do you learn about an elephant by watching Toni walk around on concrete?" she asked as she stood near the outdoor yard where the 25-year-old elephant is kept. "I've asked them to think about how to change the quality of life for animals. To change their environment. To find objects to stimulate them. To close off some of the cages so they're not so exposed. I try to do what's best for animals like Toni."

Wallace says it is his job to balance what's best for the animals and what's best for the community.

"The declines of this zoo went along with the decline of the city," he said. "Cities with growth support zoos. They're good barometers of life, and important to the quality of life, right up there with museums and orchestras. And right now, we have the authority to go ahead and do what's right. Bambi was the low point. It's all uphill now."

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