‘‘Fork over $2 million right now, or the bear gets it.”
That was my knee-jerk and uninformed impression of the Buffalo Zoo’s latest fundraising tactic, which is using the furry faces of two of its most popular inhabitants to squeeze money out of public and private funders.
Luna and Kali, the zoo’s absurdly adorable polar bear cubs, have become the face of its final push toward the finish line of a major campaign to build a new Arctic Edge exhibit. According to Zoo Director Donna Fernandes, the bears may be shipped off to another location if the project doesn’t break ground as scheduled this fall.
At first blush, the idea that the zoo’s two most popular animals would be spirited away because it had not yet raised the final 10 percent of an $18 million campaign seems absurd. What agency would take such a doctrinaire action, especially when the zoo is inches away from completing the project and has a proven track record of delivering on its promises?
That agency, as it turns out, is the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has specific plans for the way animals are transferred between zoos and standards for the facilities those animals inhabit. Buffalo’s old polar bear exhibit, which dates from the 1930s, was declared dilapidated and in need of replacement after the agency inspected it in 2011. The two adult bears who sired Luna (Kali belongs to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) have already been shipped off at least until the zoo completes its exhibit.
Even in 2011, the zoo was already in the midst of its fundraising campaign to build a modern replacement for the habitat, which is part of the multiphase master plan Fernandes has been methodically executing for years.
“The clock is ticking. They’re watching us,” Fernandes said in a phone interview. “If you suddenly say, oh, we’re going to start the new exhibit in 2014 so we have another year to raise the money, they’d be like, well, if you really don’t think you’ll be able to move forward, then you should just send the bears out. … People don’t understand that the zoo does not control the fate of its animals.”
Cynthia Kredier of the Erie Zoo, who serves on a committee that oversees the association’s polar bear survival plan, said the zoo’s statements about the bears heading elsewhere aren’t exactly baseless.
“I really don’t think it’s just a ploy,” Kredier said. “It’s definitely something that, if they don’t build that new exhibit, those bears will definitely be going somewhere else.”
Despite the real possibility of the bears’ relocation, some posturing is occurring on both sides. Even with its rules and standards, all of which are in the best interest of the animals, it seems exceedingly unlikely that the association would wrest Luna from her owners because of a minor fundraising delay. Kali’s fate is up to both the association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which means that even if the habitat were completed on time, he might not stay.
The trouble comes in the zoo’s deployment of the bears’ possible departure – real as it may be – as a blunt tool to extract that last bit of money from public coffers. It smacks of desperation, where no real desperation exists.
No one can fault the zoo for exhausting every possible avenue to complete the project. (“People cross the street when they see me because they know I’m going to ask them,” Fernandes said.)
But in such a dog-eat-dog philanthropic environment – in which worthy and community-focused organizations struggle to get any public funding at all, let alone millions at a time – the tactic of tying the bears’ departure to the final fundraising push comes off as thoughtless, if not cynical.
That remains true even while Fernandes’ claims about the bears’ being taken away check out. Sometimes, the success of these kinds of campaigns is about perception, and the zoo isn’t doing itself any favors by trading so blatantly on the public affection the bears have received to squeeze money out of public and private funders.
Understandably, this has left a bad taste in the mouths of some members of the cultural community, who see the zoo siphoning off precious public and philanthropic money that might have more impact elsewhere.
“The reality is many cultural organizations and sites have significant capital needs,” said Tod A. Kniazuk, director of the advocacy group Arts Services Initiative, when asked for a statement on the campaign. “Some have already seen millions in investment, and of course we need to get those groups across the finish line, so to speak, so they can fully realize their potential, but to truly have a strong and diverse sector we also need to identify that next wave that have potential to be great with the same kind of investment.”
There is no doubt that the zoo, a vital cultural touchstone that has flourished under Fernandes’ direction and seems poised to do so well into the future, deserves the funding it seeks. But it needn’t dangle the fate of its cubs in front of us to get it.