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A sign promoting proposition 4 hangs outside of the San Antonio Zoo. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The animals ask for $1.4 million

In 1912, George W. Brackenridge installed 10 buffalo and six wapiti from Yellowstone National Park in a corral on a future golf course that would bear his name. Two years later, Brackenridge allowed his herd to join two lions, deer, monkeys, and four bears in a move to an old limestone quarry that reportedly had supplied the stone to build the Alamo. The San Antonio Zoo was born, and then-Parks Commissioner Ray Lambert touted the city's new attraction as a cageless zoo, with its Carnivora Dens, the Barless Bear Terraces, and Primate Paradise, a concrete island with a deep moat surrounding it.

Since 1929, when an estimated crowd of 75,000 visitors attended a zoo event, generations of San Antonians have enjoyed the zoo. C.G. Sturtevant wrote in a 1934 zoo guidebook that it was the "largest crowd that ever attended a daylight event of any kind in San Antonio."

More than 70 years later, the city zoo occupies more than 35 acres, and is home to 3,800 animals that represent 750 different species, the third largest collection of zoo animals in the United States. The zoological society, which has operated the zoo since 1959, gets most of its funding for operating expenses from private donations, while about 6 percent of its budget comes from the city's general fund.

The zoo needs renovated, said Executive Director Stephen McCusker, and more public money is needed to complete its facelift. "We're dealing with an entire infrastructure instead of Band-Aids. We want to start over."

That new beginning comes in the form of a master plan that was developed in 1990s, and dubbed 2020 Vision: "The San Antonio Zoological Society is poised to embark on a new vision that will direct the zoo into the next century," reads the introduction of an executive summary that outlines the plans for the zoo's future. "And the proposed changes are substantial."

The changes also need an influx of cash — $1.45 million — that is folded into the proposed $27 million parks bond to be voted on November 4. It is the first time the zoo has requested money through a bond issue. The amount equals about one-half of 1 percent of the entire $214 million bond package, known as the "People's Nine," which includes eight other projects for the city and county. `See information at the end of this story.`

Former Mayor Howard Peak, who serves on the zoological society's board of directors, endorsed the entire bond package on October 24, touting the zoo as "one of San Antonio's gems." About 860,000 people visit the zoo each year, of which 300,000 are tourists.

A centerpiece of San Antonio life, the zoo over time has been renovated in piecemeal fashion. The handywork of laborers in the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s is visible at the facility, with the era's telltale limestone rock edifices that were typical of WPA construction projects in Central Texas. The Reptile House was added in 1942, and the Baumberger Moats were dedicated in 1954. One of the moats is occupied by a Sumatran tiger, who paces in a space next door to a couple of African lionesses who sit languidly under a shade tree and eye any visitors who walk past them.

If passed, part of the zoo bond will pay for an upgrade to Monkey Island, which ironically, hasn't seen a primate in eight years. The island will be replaced by Africa Live, a $12 million exhibit slated for about three acres between the elephant enclave and the pits at the base of the limestone quarry. Plans call for developing areas that will allow visitors to view hippos and crocodiles in an underwater environment, along with other animals in what approximates their natural habitat.

McCusker said the Brackenridge Park train and concessions in the park currently are under zoo management; more than $200,000 was spent to renovate the park's railroad tracks. Plans are under way to convert the old skyride roundhouse into a staging area for school field trips to the zoo, and if the Tuesday bond vote green-lights funding for a new animal control facility, the current one across the street could be converted to office space and an education center, plus room for school bus parking.

What C.G. Sturtevant wrote in 1934 holds true today: "Probably no other expenditure of public or private funds for education and recreation purposes reaches and benefits a greater number of people, both young and adult, than that devoted to the upkeep of a zoological park of the first rank." •

The People's Nine

On November 4, voters will be asked to decide which city and county projects will be funded through bonds. The total bond package is $214 million.

There are four county propositions:
Proposition 1 — Adult probation, juvenile probation and county jail building improvements: 11 projects at $47.9 million
Proposition 2 — Roads and bridges: 12 projects at $40.5 million
Proposition 3 — Parks and Recreation: four projects at $5.9 million
Proposition 4 — Emergency Operations Center and senior citizens multipurpose facilities: two projects at $4.7 million

There are five city propositions:
Proposition 1 — Streets: 30 projects at $29 million
Proposition 2 — Drainage: 13 projects at $18.9
Proposition 3 — San Antonio Public Library: 12 projects at $3.9 million
Proposition 4 — Parks and recreation: 54 projects at $27.2 million
Proposition 5 — Public health and safety: four projects at $35.5 million •

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