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A giant panda at China's Chengdu Panda Base, in Sichuan province. (AFP/Getty Images)
A giant panda at China's Chengdu Panda Base, in Sichuan province. (AFP/Getty Images)

Giorgio Mammoliti to join zoo staff in China for panda negotiations Add to ...

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti will be on the next panda junket to China, but he had to pay his own way to secure a seat.

The long-time zoo board member and erstwhile mayoral candidate offered to cover the $7,000 cost out of his own pocket after the Toronto Zoo's board of management spent two hours debating which board and staff members it should dispatch to China for formal negotiations on acquiring two giant pandas from a zoo in Chongqing.

"Maybe this'll stop all the nonsense," Mr. Mammoliti said. "Including the mayor's nonsense."

The board voted Tuesday to send four people: Mr. Mammoliti; Dr. Ming-Tat Cheung, chair of the zoo's giant-panda acquisition task force; John Tracogna, the zoo's chief executive officer; and Dr. William Rapley, the zoo's executive director of conservation, education and research.

The estimated cost of the trip is $21,000 - $7,000 for each of the delegates, excluding Mr. Mammoliti.

The Toronto Zoo will front the cost of the trip, but the attraction's fundraising arm has been asked to pay the money back.

The zoo has been trying for more than a decade to secure a loan of two giant pandas from China.

The project gained momentum late last year when Prime Minister Stephen Harper threw Ottawa's formal support behind a proposal to bring the creatures to the Toronto Zoo, the Calgary Zoo and the Granby Zoo, in Quebec.

A staff report to the zoo board said the Chinese are eager to begin in-person negotiations in October, when Canada and China celebrate the 40th anniversary of formal relations.

The trip is tentatively booked for Oct. 12 to Oct. 14, less than two weeks before the election.

The staff report's original recommendation was that five people - including Mr. Mammoliti and Councillor Raymond Cho, chairman of the zoo board - take part in the junket.

Mayor David Miller urged the zoo to send staff, not board members, on the trip in part because council voted 35-10 during the spring budget debate that the zoo not adjust its in-year travel budget for board members.

"The mayor's feeling is that sending five people is unnecessary and contrary to council's direction," Stuart Green, the mayor's spokesman, said in an e-mail. "Given the work that has gone into this project and the potential benefits this exhibit could bring to the City and the Zoo, it may be appropriate for a senior zoo official like the CEO to go. But not members of the board."

When Mr. Green forwarded the mayor's formal response to Mr. Cho, Mr. Cho decided to read it aloud to the board, prompting accusations that the mayor was meddling in zoo business.

"This is just ridiculous. It's absolutely ridiculous. We're doing a wonderful thing here for the city of Toronto," Mr. Mammoliti said after the vote. "People are trying to make politics of it and there's just no need for it."

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