The Buffalo Zoo fell $2 million short of raising the $14 million needed to build the Arctic Exhibit and create a new home for its polar bear cubs.
But Donna Fernandes, the zoo’s president, hasn’t given up. She and her team revised design drawings to shave expenses on the planned exhibit in advance of bids being sent out later this week to construction companies.
Cost estimates due back in three weeks will determine whether the zoo can break ground in the near future.
That decision also could decide the short-term future of Luna, the cub born in Buffalo, and the long-term prospects for Kali, the cub rescued in the Alaskan wilds.
“If we do have to send the polar bears away, it would be really bad for this community. They are just so beloved. Every person who enters the zoo, the first thing they ask is, ‘Where is Luna and Kali?’ That’s sort of unheard-of for us,” Fernandes said.
Luna was born in the zoo Nov. 27, 2012, one of only three polar bear cubs born that year in the United States. She went on exhibit in March to international fanfare.
Kali, an orphaned Alaskan cub a month younger than Luna, came to the zoo May 15. They can be seen daily from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the Vanishing Animals area.
Cost-saving changes in the Arctic Edge remove the planned lynx exhibit, leaving a grassy area where it could be restored in the future. The plans still retain wolf and bald eagle exhibits but eliminate waterfowl that would have required expensive fencing, a pool and a water filtration system.
The revised design also cuts back on use of expensive synthetic rock, which was to be used for 16-foot walls, bluffs and at grade level.
Instead, the new exhibit will reclaim natural stone from the former bear exhibits and add a woodlike material.
Recycling the stone will have historic and nostalgic value, said Gwen Howard, senior project manager for Foit-Albert Associates.
“The existing bear pit had a lot of public sentiment, and reusing that material is also a way to pay homage to the history of the zoo,” Howard said.
“We’re hoping with the cuts we made that we will be pretty close when the bids come back,” Fernandes said. “But I would be more comfortable if I had $1 million more.”
Fernandes said she’s concerned about how long Luna can stay at the zoo unless it meets American Zoological Association standards. She also will weigh escalating building costs if a whole construction season goes by without starting. But she doesn’t want to jeopardize the zoo’s fiscal future, either.
“I hate to take on debt, and once you have that shovel in the ground, people think you’re all set, and they’re on to the next thing. We really can’t carry a debt of $1 million or more,” Fernandes said, expressing concern it could drain funds from the zoo’s operating budget.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will determine where Kali’s permanent home will be.
The federal agency requires the zoo to maintain minimum U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, which the old polar bear exhibit met. But it also must approve design and management plans for a renovated pool to be located in the tiger exhibit, which the bears would use in the daytime while the nocturnal tigers are kept in their holding areas.
The St. Louis Zoo is further ahead in building its new polar bear exhibit, with a 2015 completion date, and is believed to have the inside track on becoming Kali’s permanent home.
“They sort of leaped ahead of us, since we’re a couple of months behind where we wanted to be, and they are likely to be done before ours is,” Fernandes said. “It’s up to Fish and Wildlife as to what will happen to Kali, but for certain we won’t keep him if we don’t have a quality exhibit.”
While the $4 million fundraising campaign that began in March is only halfway there, Fernandes said she remains hopeful pending grant requests could yet materialize from the City of Buffalo and the State of New York. Several individuals also are considering six-figure donations.
Fernandes said she hopes the zoo won’t have to disappoint all the people who have sold bracelets, T-shirts, jewelry and other items to raise money for the polar bear exhibit.
One business, Sweet Jenny’s Ice Cream, created special “Arctic Edge” and “Polar Plunge” flavors at its two shops in Williamsville and Snyder, with a portion going to the “Our Bears Belong in Buffalo” campaign. And on Tuesday, Tim Hortons presented the zoo a check for $20,210 from the sale of a limited edition “Strawberry Sundae” doughnut.
“That’s a lot of doughnuts, even for Buffalo,” Fernandes said.