The hippos seem happy, the koalas content and the crickets, well, they will be just be a lizard's lunch anyway. So as a strike by 360 union workers enters its fourth week at Metro Toronto Zoo, the animals sit, climb and swim while pickets march and accountants clean cages.

Matthew Graves, president of Local 1600 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and Calvin White, the zoo's general manager, agree on the central issue of the strike. It isn't about wages or job security -- it's about an 18-year-old clause in the expired contract that guarantees 150 union jobs.

"The minimum-staffing clause says the zoo won't have less than 150 full-time (union) workers," Graves said, adding that the union is not asking for a wage increase.

But other union members and White, a former budget chief of Metro Toronto, have said the union is seeking a small pay hike.

Graves said that in the nine years since White became general manager, the number of managers has grown and their wages have jumped, while the number of non-management, union workers has shrunk and their wages barely have outpaced inflation.

While zoo management has offered job security for all current workers, union officials turned down that offer to fight for the minimum-staffing requirement. In radio ads, the union accuses White of planning to close the zoo during the winter to save money.

White denied this, but added, "with the city cutting our budget by 25 percent, if we can't save money in other areas, we might have to look at that."

One reader of The Buffalo News complained that when she visited the zoo, debris and animal droppings had not been cleaned and the animals were in dangerous and unsanitary conditions.

But on Saturday, cages, aquariums, food kitchens and grounds appeared clean. Indeed, most if not all of the zoo's personnel and management seem to have been drawn to their jobs because of their concern for the animals.

Employees whose jobs are normally bookkeeping, computers or marketing were diligently cleaning orangutan and elephant cages. Many of the zoo's managers started out as animal handlers and rose through the ranks.

"I just think the (union) missed the boat" by turning down the last offer, said Neville Pike, supervisor of animal care and demonstrations, a union member for 17 years and management for six years.

"As far as I understand, the union leaders received a strike mandate weeks before (the strike began May 18), but the final offer has never been presented to the members. It was rejected by the negotiating team. There's been a whole range of interpretations about what was in that final offer," he added. "I can't see what's in it for them."

Many of his former union friends already are worried about losing their houses or cars as a result of the strike, which Pike said is for nothing more than "some ideal."

Since the strike began, zoo attendance has declined. Teachers, who also are members of the public employees union, have been encouraged not to accompany pupils on zoo trips.

Since management began taking over duties, "we've been asking ourselves 'what did they do that requires 150 more people?' " he said.

The two sides last met Monday for 14 minutes.

The Metro Toronto Zoo has nearly 5,000 animals and a budget of $13 million in U.S. funds. White said about 12 percent of the zoo's annual 1.3 million visitors, or 200,000 people, come from the United States, with half of those coming from Western New York.

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