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Kumar, a three-month-old Bactrian camel, with Dr. Bill Rapley at the Toronto Zoo (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Kumar, a three-month-old Bactrian camel, with Dr. Bill Rapley at the Toronto Zoo (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)


Inside Toronto's hidden zoo Add to ...

The old vet seems at ease here in hospital, so content to walk around rattling off facts and figures about hormone analysis and the various tranquilizing drugs he’s helped pioneer that he ignores the startling scene taking place in the operating room as we pass by.

“Oh, that’s just more of the bat work,” he says, looking at a pink tube trailing from an operating table where two vets bend over something minuscule with wings. I can’t resist and sidestep my way from the tour to have a gander. But I still can’t quite tell if the subject is an animal or an eggplant.

Chris Dutton, one of the staff vets, rushes over to explain. The eggplant is actually a bat.

“So we’re looking at bat surgery?”

“Well, yes, a bat biopsy, actually.”

The set-up is much like a human surgery – anesthetic, scalpels, scrubs – but the process far more delicate. In the adjacent recovery room, another bat convalesces upside-down under the watchful eye of a vet student, one of dozens who come from Switzerland, France, Australia, Norway and elsewhere to study in a PhD program here run through the University of Guelph.

It turns out iron deficiency is a big killer of bats around the world, Dr. Dutton explains. The research staff are doing liver biopsies to figure out why some maintain healthy iron levels and others don’t. The results could help solve the riddle of globally increasing mortality rates of the winged critters.

The conservation and budget clash

It’s worth considering how all this would look to a private-sector bean counter. By the numbers, the zoo loses upwards of $11-million a year, a shortfall that its current owners, the taxpayers of the City of Toronto, have to make up in the form of an annual grant.

So, a new operator would face the immediate conundrum of carving more than $11-million from the zoo budget. And it’s not difficult to see where they’d start. This year alone, conservation and education projects will sop up $12-million – all efforts tied to that higher purpose. “For that they become recognized pretty universally as one of the world’s best zoos,” said Bill Peters, national director of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “Within the zoo community, with the amount they have invested in research, breeding, conservation and species management, they have earned an outstanding reputation.”

This altruistic side of the zoo’s mandate doesn’t pay particularly well, yielding just $1.7-million in the form of government grants and feed royalties.

“If you're approaching it strictly from budget-management approach, that's what you would go after, the costly conservations stuff. It doesn't put bums in the seats,” said Mr. Peters. “But this work is fundamental to what zoos are in the modern zoo world.”

The rough formula is hard to ignore: zoo minus conservation equals instant profits. Or, as Dennis Speigel, a theme-park consultant and registered lobbyist for Parque Reunidos, put it, “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; they will expect returns.”

Dr. Rapley refuses to venture into this kind of financial speculation. His chief executive officer will, but cautiously. “To eliminate the city’s contribution, you would be looking at a smaller footprint for the Toronto Zoo,” said John Tracogna. “It would shrink.”

Reconciling the mandate with earning profits

Toronto came late to the metropolitan zoo. Large U.S. cities had embraced the concept for a century by the time the Metro Toronto Zoo opened in August, 1974. It was a time of shifting priorities in the business. What started in Ancient Egypt as aristocratic menageries intended to flaunt wealth and worldliness were slowly converted to public attractions with the ultimate goal of animal conservation, reflecting a boom in ecological awareness during the 1970s. Since that time, the Toronto Zoo has played an integral role in saving dozens of endangered species, including the trumpeter swan, black-footed ferret and Vancouver Island marmot.

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