As autumn arrives, patrons of the Baton Rouge Zoo can look forward to cooler weekends for visiting one of the city’s longtime attractions. It’s a prime chance to escape the bustle of everyday life for a while and live, if only briefly, in the moment.
But residents should also think about the long-term prospects for the zoo, which has lost its national accreditation and badly needs an update. Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission officials plan to kick-start the first phase of a major renovation, which they estimate could cost between $25 million and $35 million, by dipping into the agency’s surplus funds. Fully executing the master plan for the zoo will take years and cost millions more, requiring private donors to lend a hand.
That’s why community buy-in is so critical for the zoo’s success. The zoo’s potential base of support was frayed last year after a heated debate about whether the facility should move from its present location in north Baton Rouge to a new spot in the southeastern part of the parish. Backers of the move thought it would help drive attendance by putting the zoo closer to more people.
Though the idea flopped, we’re heartened that many on the losing side of that argument didn’t simply wash their hands of the matter and go home. They’ve stayed involved, apparently committed to making the new master plan a success.
The origins of the Baton Rouge Zoo are a case study in what civic engagement can do. Opened on Easter Sunday in 1970, the zoo captured the hearts and minds of residents when local children’s television personality “Buckskin Bill” Black recruited his pint-size viewers to pool their pennies and buy two elephants for the new facility.
If the Baton Rouge Zoo is going to grow and prosper for a new generation of patrons, that kind of rank-and-file support will be crucial.
Officials envision that as the master plan is implemented, zoo attendance could increase 40% in the next eight years.
We’re encouraged that BREC is also planning improvements for Greenwood Park, the zoo’s neighboring green space, which is slated to get more trails, sporting fields and recreational amenities.
Black famously signed off his popular broadcasts with the exhortation, “Baton Rouge needs a zoo.”
Dear Buckskin Bill is gone now, but his message should endure.
Baton Rouge still needs a zoo.
It’s up to us to secure it for the future.