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African penguins swim in their new enclosure, and interact with African Savannah Keeper Deserrai Buunk at the Toronto Zoo on May 19, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
African penguins swim in their new enclosure, and interact with African Savannah Keeper Deserrai Buunk at the Toronto Zoo on May 19, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Threat of zoo sale has donors closing wallets Add to ...

The councillor knew the question was coming, but she still didn’t have the answer.

As a group of Toronto Zoo donors assembled for a panel session with her and other members of the zoo’s board over the weekend, reports were swirling about multinational amusement companies interested in buying up the Scarborough facility.

It was clear from the outset that donor concern centred not so much on the fate of the aged elephants or the status of the giraffe pen, but about something much more central to the fortunes of Canada’s largest zoo: “What’s happening to my money?”

“That’s what’s on every donor’s mind,” said Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby in an interview Tuesday. “As soon as you hear the zoo could be sold or turned into Busch Gardens, you want to know why you should keep up with your donations. We have to let people know that the city is not entertaining a public fire sale.”

Hope among supporters that Ottawa might solve the problem by offering to take over the site was squelched by Parks Canada on Tuesday.

“That is not the role of Parks Canada – it will not be the role of Parks Canada in the future,” said Natalie Fay, spokeswoman for Parks Canada, currently establishing a national park in the Rouge River area surrounding the zoo.

Since city council voted in favour of selling or leasing the Toronto Zoo last month, some long-time donors have decided to postpone large gifts until the zoo’s ownership issues are resolved, a process that could take years. Board members are working to reassure donors that they have no intention of selling the zoo to a private interest such as Parque Reunidos – the amusement park giant making inquiries about the Toronto Zoo at city hall. The board is worried that the zoo’s uncertain fate could undermine its donor base – worth $1.7-million in 2010 – for years to come.

“We have to tell them, no, the zoo is not closing, it’s not going away,” said board chair Joe Torzsok. “And we can’t afford to stand still and wait to see what happens. That’s not responsible to do.”

The cloud hanging over the family attraction has arrived at a bad time. It’s embarking on a $250-million capital drive to update aging amenities, and attendance has remained flat for years even as the GTA’s population has continued to rise.

As much as dedicated supporters would like to donate, they’re not about to throw money at an organization if there’s any possibility of it falling into corporate hands.

“I will not be giving a major gift until this situation is resolved,” said Patricia Koval, a partner with Torys LLP who’s been supporting the zoo since the 80s. “And anyone else contemplating large gifts to the zoo, this has got to be factoring in their minds. Essentially, you would be funding a private interest. You can’t get that money back.”

Like most zoo supporters, Ms. Koval agrees that it needs an overhaul. The city-centred governance structure makes the organization unwieldy, she said, and saps enthusiasm for fundraising. She supports the idea of forming a non-profit charity that would run the zoo with seed money from the city.

“The longer this uncertainty drags out, the tougher it will be for the zoo to keep a loyal donor base,” she said.

The board knows as much. Some members want city manager Joe Pennachetti or Mayor Rob Ford to come out in favour of a non-profit model before too many backers lose interest.

“The city needs to signal that it’s looking into these other kinds of models,” said Ms. Lindsay Luby. “Unfortunately, I don’t see much vision on this, especially from the mayor’s office.”

At the event on Saturday, both Ms. Lindsay Luby and Mr. Torszok tried to persuade restive donors that the zoo is likely to remain in public hands for the foreseeable future, thanks in part to a complicated ownership structure.

More than 80 per cent of the zoo’s 700 acres is held by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and much of it lies in a protected floodplain.

“It’s not like someone can just come in and knock down trees for a roller-coaster or an amusement park,” said board vice-chair Councillor Paul Ainslie. “That’s not going to happen.”

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