It will likely take more than three years for the Baton Rouge Zoo to reclaim its cherished accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

Regaining the national recognition, zoo officials said, will heavily hinge on the parish's parks and recreation system pulling off a multi-phased, multi-million-dollar revamp of the zoo's outdated facilities, which are in the preliminary stages of development.

"The reason it'll take so long is because construction takes so long," Zoo Director Phil Frost said. "Losing our accreditation wasn't about things we can change overnight. It was about construction, period."

The zoo lost its 40-year-old AZA accreditation in March, days after the board of commissioners that oversees the parks and recreation department shot down an unpopular  recommendation from outgoing Superintendent Carolyn McKnight to relocate the zoo. 

Officials at BREC are hoping they can secure funding in 2019 to pay for capital improvements at the zoo that will need to start between April 2020 and July 2021 in order to re-apply for accreditation and possibly regain it by March 2022. 

That timeline will run almost parallel with BREC's redesign at Greenwood Park, adjacent to the zoo.

The zoo would have to pass an on-site inspection by AZA's team of accreditation professionals in December 2021, according to the projected timeline from BREC.

Only 10 percent of the more than 2,500 licensed wildlife facilities in the country are accredited by the AZA, which Baton Rouge zoo officials heavily promoted in its marketing before losing its accreditation this year. 

Frost said losing the zoo's accreditation hasn't stopped the level of professionalism and quality animal care.

He said the zoo was dinged by the accreditation committee for years over not updating its animal exhibits, attractions and other facilities. According to previous reports, among the list of other concerns the accrediting agency noted in their report included worries about three animal escapes within a 16-month period and several high-profile animal deaths in recent years.

"The deaths that occurred had nothing to do with anything the staff did," Frost said. "It was their feeling we had not done enough to eliminate our old, aging facilities and replace then fast enough." 

The more than 140-acre zoo hasn't been updated much since it opened in the 1970s, he said.

Frost said the parish's parks and recreation system didn't have the money it would have taken over the years to keep the zoo's aging infrastructure from falling so behind the times. 

"BREC only has so much money to operate on," he said. "When you have more than 180 parks ... it starts getting spread pretty thin." 

BREC has already hired two consulting firms — one for the zoo and one for Greenwood Park — who have begun work on the master plans that will inform architectural and engineering concepts for both projects. 

They'll need those concepts before they can start campaigning for the private donations BREC officials said it will take to supplement the limited amount of taxpayer money that can go toward both projects. 

Once master plans are drawn, BREC will also have a better idea of how much the improvements will cost.

BREC wants to have those master plans completed by September 2019. Both consulting firms will host public meetings, likely beginning in January.

Frost said the idea is to revamp animal exhibits at the zoo so that instead of displaying them individually, certain animals will co-mingle in themed exhibits, giving the zoo a bigger feel and fall in line with how animals are showcased at zoos in bigger cities.  

The changes will be phased-out so that construction doesn't interrupt too much of the daily operations at the zoo in the meantime.   

Early ideas have also included adding more seating areas, community event space and implementing programs around animal education. 

Upgrades for Greenwood Park are on the same trajectory, according to BREC's Assistant Superintendent of Planning Reed Richard. 

Many local leaders and residents living in the northern part of the parish pushed for the park's revitalization along with the zoo's to breathe new life in the economically depressed area.  

Richard said workshops and public meetings will take place during the 10-month drafting of the project's master plan. Preliminary discussions about improving the park have including adding an amphitheater, multi-use pads, a large scale adventure playground for kids and a natural habitat for exploration. 

While both projects are separate, Richard said both planning firms are consulting with one another to prevent an overlap in new amenities between the park and the zoo. 

"We want to make it a better integration between the two facilities," he said. "We want people to realize, if they're going to go, we'll also have plenty for them to do in the park."

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