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Its plan for a new waterfront facility recently thwarted, the Buffalo Zoo turned Tuesday to the challenge of holding on to its professional accreditation.

That may prove difficult for the 124-year-old Delaware Park facility, which will be re-evaluated next year by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. After the last accreditation inspection, in 1995, the zoo association faulted the Depression-era structures -- particularly the main building, where lesser felines and apes are kept in antiquated cages.

"It was a hot button," Thomas E. Garlock, zoo president, told the zoo board.

"It was pretty clear we had to do something," said Garlock, who, at the time, had just been named executive director.

With the proposal for a new zoo now withdrawn because of a lack of political support and funding, the fall-back strategy calls for cosmetic changes at the main building over the next few months -- including placing plants in the structure to remind visitors of the animals' natural habitat.

The idea is "to make the main building at least look better than it is, to soften the rather institutional look," said Gerald D. Aquilina, general curator.

In terms of physical facilities, passing zoo association muster "is going to be a toughie for us," he conceded. "The problem is, we don't have any projects coming up in the next three years. We haven't had the same capital investment as other zoos."

Improvements were made bit by bit over the years at the present 23.5-acre site and then suspended altogether in anticipation of a move to the waterfront. Zoos and aquariums across the nation, meanwhile, have been spending $422 million to upgrade, Garlock noted.

In addition to the aging facilities, declining attendance and a bare-bones operating budget also "are not going to bode well for us" in the zoo association's eyes, Aquilina warned.

The zoo's best hope is to avoid outright denial of its certification, Aquilina said. The accreditation hopefully would be tabled for six months, giving the board time to devise a new master plan that measures up to zoo association standards.

Zoo consultants have estimated that bringing the infrastructure up to snuff would cost $24 million.

The zoo has received a $45,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Buffalo and is seeking additional money from other private sources to develop a site plan and a business plan, said Donna M. Gioia, zoo chairwoman.

Any new master plan will not envision swallowing up an eight-acre parcel of Delaware Park between the zoo and Amherst Street or expanding into any other part of the park, Gioia stressed.

"There is no chance of that. Our mission is to stay within the present footprint," she said.

County Executive Gorski and Mayor Masiello have pledged to support the zoo as it prepares for reaccreditation.

"We're trying to do the best we can in the time we have, with the money we have," Aquilina said.

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