Oahu residents have voted to give the Honolulu Zoo a guarantee of steady funding from the city.

City Charter Amendment No.9 approved a week ago will help the zoo on its path to regain the national accreditation it lost in March, when the Association of Zoos and Aquariums faulted it for, among other things, having inadequate and inconsistent annual funding.

Honolulu Zoo director Baird Fleming is overjoyed by the show of support from voters.

“This reaffirms the fact that the people feel the zoo is a very important place that deserves to be accredited and well funded, Fleming says. “It shows that the people care about the longevity of the zoo. It really means a lot know that so many people think we are on the right track.”

Honolulu Zoo
A giraffe and zebras in the African Savanna section of the Honolulu Zoo. Denby Fawcett

The measure sets aside 0.5 percent of Oahu’s estimated property taxes each year for the zoo. That means the city must subsidize the zoo annually with at least  $6.5 million.

The subsidy will be combined with the $5.2 million the zoo earns on its own each year from admissions, parking fees and food and gift concessions.

Fleming says in the future the zoo hopes to greatly expand the amount of money it earns on its own to make the full $13 million it needs each year to run all operations and cover its debt service.

When I started looking at the zoo amendment before the election, I sometimes wondered if Oahu really needs a zoo. 

With the internet and virtual reality and excellent documentary films, there are plenty of opportunities for children to see wild animals rather than viewing them locked up like prisoners.

Zoo opponents believe many creatures would be happier if they were carefully reintroduced to the wild or transferred to natural refuges with large fields where they could roam freely.

The city of Buenos Aires is closing its zoo because city officials there say it is degrading to keep wild animals in captivity.  The Buenos Aires mayor announced in June the city will be moving 2,500 zoo animals to nature reserves.

Honolulu Zoo ploughshoe tortoises
Ploughshare tortoises at the Honolulu Zoo. Denby Fawcett

Yet thinking about the Honolulu Zoo, I always return to feeling good about it. The zoo has been a peaceful place on the edge of Kapiolani Park for more than a century. Without the zoo, Waikiki would seem less tropical.

I like going there to sit under the huge, shady Indian banyan  trees. The lushly landscaped 42 acres offer a quiet refuge in the heart of noisy, concrete-encased Waikiki.

The zoo is one of the few places in the heart of urban Honolulu where little children can play freely. They are as contained in the fenced zoo as the animals they come to gawk at. As they dash about on the zoo’s sweeping emerald green lawns, some of the more curious kids will stop in their tracks long enough to be amazed by creatures they’ve only seen before in books or on TV.

Today’s zoos are no longer places just for showing off exotic animals. Zoos also serve an important role in protecting and increasing populations of endangered wildlife.

Fleming says the Honolulu Zoo has one of the best records of any in the country for breeding some species of wild animals, including Galapagos tortoises, Komodo dragons, Sumatran tigers, African wild dogs and one of the most endangered reptiles in the world, the ploughshare tortoise.

Some Honolulu Zoo animals have lived longer than they might have elsewhere. Djelita, the zoo’s Sumatran tiger, died this year at a record age of 25.  Sumatran tigers in the wild only live to be about 12 and in captivity, on average to about 20.

‘Think About How They Relate To Us’

Not all voters approved of the amendment to support the zoo.

Mililani resident Stephanie McLaughlin wrote in a letter to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser before the election to say the zoo should be closed. She described zoos as cruel places where wild animals languish in loneliness and boredom. 

McLaughlin wrote, “The city should close the zoo and turn it into a parking lot. It would make a lot more money. Vote no on amendment No.9.”

Still, 154,035 voters — about 57 percent — approved of the measure.

Zoo fan Kate Brown says she drives in from Kailua to see the animals at least three times a month. She thinks it’s a good experience for her 4 year-old daughter Laci.

Honolulu Zoo volunteer Larry Jones with Kate Brown and her daughter Laci, 4. Jones is showing them skulls of different primates.
Honolulu Zoo volunteer Larry Jones with Kate Brown and her daughter Laci, 4. Jones is showing them skulls of different primates. Denby Fawcett

Brown is among the 11,000 Hawaii residents who have paid $45-$55 for annual family memberships.

When I visited the zoo recently, I crossed paths with Laci Brown near the ape enclosures. Laci was watching intently as zoo volunteer Larry Jones showed her plastic skull models of primates to compare the craniums of the monkeys and apes with a human skull.

Mother Kate says, “The zoo is a great place for Laci to become familiar with many different animals in the world and think about how they relate to us as humans.”

The Honolulu Zoo’s accreditation was yanked in March for two other reasons besides its unsteady source of funding. There was a question of leadership. The zoo has had five different directors in the last six years.

The zoo was also criticized for the friction between its employees and the zoo’s fundraising arm, the Honolulu Zoo Society.

In the past, the society was criticized for giving only 10 percent of its $1.5 million annual budget as direct aid to the zoo and for making decisions independent of supporting the zoo.

David Earles is the new society director, on board since August. Earles says the society is working hard  to improve communications with the zoo staff and plans to give the zoo more money in the future for direct animal care. 

“We are totally aligned with the zoo now. We will do whatever it takes to support it,” says Earles.

‘Our Local Population Believes In The Zoo’

It is important to remember that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, in its review of Honolulu, found no fault with the care of the zoo’s animals. It said a lot of the credit for that goes to Fleming and his staff.

In a phone interview, association spokesman Rob Vernon called Fleming a caring and extraordinary person. Vernon says the AZA is impressed by the improvements Fleming has made since he took over.

Fleming is a veterinarian who became assistant zoo director in August 2012 and had been interim director three times before becoming director in February.

Fleming says the Honolulu Zoo is definitely worth saving because of its long history with the people of Hawaii.

Zoo Director Baird Fleming with the cow Lani Moo in the children’s zoo section.
Zoo Director Baird Fleming with the cow Lani Moo in the children’s zoo section. City and County of Honolulu

“We get more than 300,000 Hawaii residents visiting each year. Our local population believes in the zoo,” he says.

 More than 207, 000 tourists visited last year as well, including President Barack Obama and his family.

Fleming says, “President Obama keeps coming back to the zoo with his daughters every time he is on vacation in Hawaii. What other zoo can say that a United States president is one of its regular visitors?”

Fleming adds, “Everybody has their own personal story about the zoo.”

He is right. My story is about when a donkey in the children’s petting zoo section bit my daughter Brett on the arm and refused to let go. This was in 1988, just after the petting zoo was renovated. Brett was startled and started screaming. I tapped the donkey on the nose and said loudly “no.” But it refused to let go of her arm until I slammed it in the face a few times with my purse.

I retold the story to a zoo employee recently and he remembered the particular donkey. He says, “Oh that was Sally. She did crazy things like that. We had to get rid of her. The zoo traded her for a miniature horse.”

Honolulu Zoo penguin section
Honolulu Zoo visitors check out the penguin exhibit. Denby Fawcett

I also have a nicer story about the time Brett and I spent the night in the zoo on a sleepover and ate a lot of marshmallows while we stayed awake most of the night listening to sirens from the nearby fire station and the strange howls and murmurs from the nocturnal animals. We still talk about that night.

Fleming says we have the most isolated zoo on the planet. A sign says, “This is the best zoo to be found for 2,300 miles in any direction.“ Without a zoo, a Hawaii resident would have to fly as far as California to see such a large collection of exotic animals.

“Hawaii is the extinction capital of the world,” Fleming says. “Here at the zoo we have an opportunity to talk about biodiversity and native species and to point out which animals are endangered and why.”

The zoo can apply for reaccreditation as early March, but Fleming says he and his staff  plan to move cautiously to make the needed improvements over the next few years before reapplying.

Asked what Hawaii residents can do to help, he says, “Visit the zoo.”

Fleming says he is always amazed when people tell him how much they love the zoo, but then admit they haven’t visited in years.

“Come back to the zoo to create new memories, new stories,” he says. “If you were proud of the zoo before, very soon, you will be even more proud of it.”

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