EXCLUSIVE: Mayor, council member tour troubled Honolulu Zoo

EXCLUSIVE: Mayor, council member tour troubled Honolulu Zoo
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell
Council member Kymberly Pine
Council member Kymberly Pine

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Just a day after a Hawaii News Now investigation raised questions about whether the nonprofit Honolulu Zoo Society was doing enough to support the financially struggling zoo, two top city officials toured the zoo searching for ways to make improvements.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Council member Kymberly Pine, who chairs the committee that oversees the zoo, toured the property Friday, escorted by Acting Zoo Director Baird Fleming.

Pine said the tour was set up in the middle of last month, after she expressed concern when the fifth zoo director in four years resigned.

"It sounds like there are problems somewhere. And having numerous directors either leave or resign in such a short period of time. It does raise concerns that something's wrong," said Pine.

After the city hired its last two zoo directors from the mainland, and neither of them had any previous zoo experience, the mayor now wants to hire from within and has limited the applicants to current city employees.

"We need a zoo director who's committed to stay here, who loves this place, doesn't come back and talk stink, but is committed to spend many, many years here, make a career and show the dedication to get us back on course," Caldwell told Hawaii News Now.

Two former zoo directors have complained the nonprofit Honolulu Zoo Society has neglected to raise badly-needed funds for the zoo, giving just 10 percent of its $1.5 million annual budget to the zoo in direct support.

Caldwell says the city is "developing a better relationship with the Zoo Society, where we really are working in a collaborative way, where we're getting money that we need to improve our services at the zoo."

Fleming showed Caldwell and Pine the slimy, green pond in the primate exhibit where the city has asked the Zoo Society to pay to fix the broken filtration system.

"And so we need to decide do we want a zoo in the city of Honolulu and if the answer is yes, then we have to provide the funding necessary to make it successful," Pine said.

The mayor didn't offer budget specifics but said more money is on the way to the zoo.

"Our budget that will be submitted on March 1 will have more money to repair things that need to be repaired and it's going to have more money to improve staffing," Caldwell said.

Confidentially, many zoo employees said they are concerned the zoo will lose its accreditation when an inspection team comes here next January. So the city has very little time to turn things around.

Numerous zoo exhibits are empty, have broken fixtures and are in need of various repairs.

And even though they are grateful the mayor appears to be paying attention, zoo veterans point to a frustrating pattern, with the city spending money and resources in the year before an accreditation inspection, and then allowing the budgets to be cut and facilities to degrade once the zoo wins re-accreditation.

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