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Under pressure to improve or risk its national accreditation, the Buffalo Zoo is asking the state to split with Erie County the cost of a $4 million "interim" exhibit plan for the badly outmoded Delaware Park facility.

The $2 million state grant, combined with a similar amount already committed by the county, would be used to begin overhauling the zoo's Depression-era Main Building and create an entertaining river otter exhibit in the middle of the 23.5-acre complex.

An application has been submitted to Empire State Development Corp. -- the funding source Gov. George E. Pataki recommended during a recent meeting with zoo leaders.

However, securing the money will require support from the Western New York legislative delegation as well as the governor.

Under the interim exhibit plan, the Main Building's steel outdoor cages, housing small felines and primates, would be replaced by large exhibits that would be inhabited by various species on a revolving basis.

For example, visitors might see snow leopards in the outdoor feline habitat all winter long, and other small felines during warm weather. On the other side of the building, mandrills could be displayed one day and Japanese macaques the next.

New enclosed viewing areas facing both habitats would be connected at the center of the semicircular stone building by an indoor "conservation station" housing exhibits on the global effort to preserve endangered species.

These proposed changes, drawn up by CLRdesign of Philadelphia, would cost $3 million -- $1 million more than previously estimated -- and would stop short of fixing the Main Building's interior, where primates and felines live in barred cages that zoo critics compare to prison cells.

Those enclosures would be kept as holding cages for the outdoor habitats until funds to update the inside are found, zoo President Donna M. Fernandes said.

Meanwhile, the lead-based paint that coated the interior walls has been removed with the city's assistance, making life safer for the animals, if not more comfortable.

The proposed otter exhibit, costing $1 million, would celebrate the return of a native species that disappeared from Western and Central New York a century ago because of trapping and habitat loss. A cooperative effort by trappers and animal lovers over the past five years has led to the relocation of 300 otters to rivers and streams throughout the region.

The improvements are intended to show the American Zoo and Aquarium Association that the zoo is making a good-faith effort to comply with modern zoo standards and should keep its accreditation until a master plan is implemented. An association inspection team is due to visit next spring.

Getting started on the Main Building is the top priority, but it won't happen without state participation, Fernandes said.

"We have to come up with $1 million by June or the project won't go out to bid," she said.

The zoo, which decided a year ago to remain in Delaware Park after failing to win public and political support for building a new $160 million waterfront facility, has received proposals from seven design teams interested in developing a master plan for the park location.

Three finalists will be chosen, and interviews conducted later this month, Fernandes said.

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