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A polar bear is watched by two visitors at at the Tundra Trek section of the Metro Toronto Zoo. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
A polar bear is watched by two visitors at at the Tundra Trek section of the Metro Toronto Zoo. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Spanish amusement park operator eyes Toronto zoo Add to ...

One of the world’s largest amusement park operators is eyeing the Toronto Zoo for a potential takeover after council’s decision to sell or lease the money-losing facility.

A U.S. lobby firm representing Madrid-based Parque Reunidos – owner of 82 international theme parks such as BonBon Land, Waterworld and Dutch Wonderland – filed papers with the city on Sept. 21, according to the lobbyist registry.

“The Toronto Zoo runs about a $20-million deficit; private organizations can do a better job,” says Dennis Speigel, a theme park consultant with Innovative Strategic Management, the firm applying for lobbyist status.

Council’s Sept. 26 vote to privatize zoos parallels similar decisions across North America, but it creates as many quandaries as it solves. The appearance of a major amusement park operator on the scene, for instance, will fan fears that the city could sell the zoo to the highest bidder, surrendering its research-and-education mandate for a private company’s profit motive.

“The minute a company comes along to wring profit from it, the zoo is no longer a zoo. It’s just another tourist trap,” said zoo consultant David Towne, who has worked on governance transitions at several U.S. zoos.

City manager Joe Pennachetti has said he would like expressions of interest from the private sector for the “sale or operation” of the zoo. That leaves open the possibility for Toronto to retain ownership of the zoo while spinning off the task of running it to a non-profit – a model adopted in many major North American cities.

“It’s a model that works well, it’s a model other cities are rapidly evolving towards,” said Joe Torzsok, chair of the Toronto Zoo Board, citing San Diego, Dallas and the Vancouver Aquarium as examples.

Theoretically, the non-profit models offer the best of both private and public zoos: They are more attractive to donors than a government agency or a private company, they generally uphold principles of conservation and education that are central to most government-run zoos, and they operate under a streamlined management unencumbered by the city’s complex labour and purchasing rules.

“Right now, if we wanted to hire someone next winter, we would have to start the process right now to clear all levels of bureaucracy,” Mr. Torzsok said.

At Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo in the late 1990s, Mr. Towne, who was then the zoo’s president, faced backlash from unions and residents when he switched to a non-profit model.

The former feared for their jobs, the latter for the traditional zoo experience.

“Everyone recognizes the Toronto Zoo, but who’s going to buy it without changing its focus?” said Cal White, former CEO. “It’s not there just to make a profit, it’s there to do good things, like reintroducing species. A private operator will be tempted to cut that.”

Parque Reunidos operates several zoos – including a former municipal operation in Madrid – and adheres to care and conservation guidelines set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. At the same time, Mr. Speigel said, a private company would inevitably shake things up.

“They are not going to come in and stick a roller coaster out by the ostriches,” he said of Parque Reunidos. “At the same time, for a major company to come in with the capacity to take on this kind of product and responsibility, they are not doing it out of the goodness of their heart.”

Labour costs would be a key focus of any cost-cutting efforts by new management. When the Dallas Zoological Society pulled management duties from city hands, the zoo quickly cut $4-million of its budget by outsourcing zookeepers and other workers.

“There is concern among the workers,” said Grant Ankerman, president of the Toronto Zoo Keepers Union, CUPE 1600, and a senior keeper in the Indo-Malayan pavilion. “Our point is that the current model works quite well. Torontonians are getting good bang for their buck now. Why change?”

And how would such a sale take place?

Los Angeles issued a request for proposals in August for its zoo, much to the chagrin of industry insiders. “They’re treating it like a public works project,” says Mr. Towne, who advised Los Angeles against issuing an RFP. “This is a civic asset. Toronto is best advised to avoid anything close to that.”

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