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Boro leaders rally to rescue Queens Zoo from budget ax

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Borough leaders rallied at the Queens Zoo’s symbolic graveyard of extinct species Tuesday to build support to save the wildlife center, which faces extinction at the end of June from a cut by the city’s falling budget ax.

“Keeping the zoo open is part of our life, it speaks to our humanity,” Borough President Helen Marshall told a gathering of children, zoo employees, wildlife advocates and public officials. “You can’t send an animal to a homeless shelter. You’ve got to make sure they go to the right place.”

Among the animals that would face an uncertain future if the zoo closed are a pair of orphaned 4-month-old mountain lion cubs, which made their public debut before a spectacle of photographers at the end of the rally.

The Queens Zoo was the only center across the country that had a place for the still-unnamed brother and sister, which might have been euthanized if a home had not been found for them after their mother was shot in Montana.

“We already know there was no place available to take them,” said Robin Dalton, the zoo’s director. If the zoo closed, “it would take a long time to find a place.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget proposal severely cuts the city’s subsidies to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Queens Zoo along with three others across the city. The Queens Zoo and the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn would both be forced to close under the mayor’s budget, which makes harsh across-the-board cuts to narrow the city’s deficit.

Public officials hope to save the zoo by reappropriating some city funds while securing some private support. Marshall said she is forming an independent group that would organize a gala fund-raiser to support the zoo.

“I don’t think we can raise the entire amount we want,” Marshall said. “We can cut into it and expect the city to fill out the rest.”

City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) said the Council is entering into an intense phase of budget negotiations that may bring back some funding to the zoos.

“Our priorities are public safety and education, and the zoo falls under education — as you can see, there are school kids all over the place,” Vallone said. “We most likely won’t be able to restore the entire amount of funding, but hopefully enough to keep it operating with private contributi­ons.”

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. It was renovated and reopened in 1992.

“Closing the zoo would be a very short-sighted money-saving effort,” Dalton said. “If we don’t have healthy places for animals to live in this world, we won’t have a healthy place for us to live, either.”

Former Borough President Claire Shulman, who helped bring back the renovated zoo a decade ago, described the elimination of the wildlife center as a major blow to the borough’s educational programs.

“The zoo and the farm are essential to the development of our children,” said Shulman, holding a handmade poster adorned with pictures of trees and animals that read “Save the Queens Zoo.”

“This is part of our educational program. The idea of taking the zoo away is ridiculous, it’s ludicrous.”

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

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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