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Budget cuts may eliminate Queens’ only zoo in 2004

When Flushing Meadows Phil and Corona Kate spotted their shadow on Groundhog’s Day, they doomed the borough to six more weeks of winter.

But that chilly forecast grew even darker Tuesday when Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a budget plan that would close the Queens Zoo for good, forcing the weather-predicting prairie dogs and hundreds of other animals out of their home in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

The proposal drew loud protest from across Queens, where county residents account for 60 percent of the zoo’s annual attendance of 220,000, including many schoolchildren on class trips.

“If they want to close a zoo — which I think is very short-sighted — it shouldn’t be in Brooklyn and Queens where the people live,” said Claire Shulman, who was borough president when the Queens Zoo reopened in 1992 after extensive renovations. “I understand the budget and I understand that the budget has to be cut. But I think that it has to be cut in ways that make sense.”

Bloomberg’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2004 — which begins July 1 — eliminates the city’s subsidies to the Queens Zoo and the Prospect Park Zoo, a step that would force both institutions to close their doors. The two city zoos were renovated and reopened in the early 1990s by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which receives its funding from the city.

“We want to continue to help New York survive this fiscal crisis, but we can’t fire a bear or lay off a baboon,” said John Calvelli, the society’s vice president.

The zoo, which first opened in 1968, boasts a collection of 400 animals from more than 80 different species — including endangered species like spectacle bears and thick-bill parrots. The zoo’s newest inhabitants, a pair of orphaned mountain lion cubs from Montana, were delivered only weeks ago.

“Closing it ... signals in some ways the transitory nature of the commitment that people have to wildlife,” said Robin Dalton, the zoo’s director. “Without having a healthy wildlife population in the world, there won’t be a healthy planet for people to live either.”

Perhaps the gravest problems stemming from the zoo’s possible closure would be finding a home for the animals, a process that would begin by making pleas to other zoos across the country.

“It’s not as if it’s a dog or cat and you can take it and turn it over to the Humane Society,” Dalton said. “It’s a long process to try and disassemble an entire collection. It took five months of hard work to amass these animals. It’ll be more difficult to find homes for them.”

The loss of zoo funding is part of laundry list of cuts — including the closure of health clinics and eight firehouses — that Bloomberg laid out to help the city eliminate a $600 million budget gap.

But members of the City Council, which will negotiate a revised budget plan with the mayor, pledged to rescue the zoo from the chopping block.

“I’m sure at the end of the day we will be able to save the zoo,” said City Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-Corona), whose district includes the zoo. “We’re going to fight on, trying to get some revenues. Closing down the zoo is not the answer.”

Civic leaders echoed his call.

“We are asking the mayor to reconsider his decision to close the Queens Zoo,” said Patricia Dolan, a vice president of the Queens Civic Congress. “The zoo is an integral part of the park and it’s essential that it remain open in the interests of the people who use the park.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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