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GIAMBRA WRONG TO PLAY POLITICAL GAMES WITH THE ZOO

As a member of the Buffalo Zoo's board of directors, I have been deeply shaken by the pronouncements coming from the county executive's office over the past week. The proposed financial cuts to our area's cultural institutions are painful body blows to organizations that are already in a fragile state.

In the zoo's case, these proposed cuts will probably be fatal. It's painful to watch, because this is an organization that has been painstakingly fighting its way back to viability over the past few years.

I understand that there are serious fiscal concerns that need to be addressed. Nonetheless, I think the willingness of our leadership to indulge in political brinkmanship with our area's most treasured institutions is a serious breach of trust to the private sector benefactors who have worked so diligently to preserve them.

As vice president of the zoo board, head of its nominating committee and co-chair for the capital campaign, I have had a front-row seat for the spectacular turnaround that has occurred there over the past three years. This has been the result of a committed volunteer team, a strategic and engaged board and -- most important -- the passionate and tireless efforts of our executive director, Donna Fernandes.

Fernandes is a lightning bolt of enthusiasm. With her leadership, the board has succeeded in cutting its operating expenses, raised over $4 million in private sector funds and completed a 12-year master plan.

The threat of the county's "red budget" has done more to undermine the zoo's future than a Category 4 hurricane making a direct hit, and it will hurt the ones doing the best job in our community. Even if the county rescinds the "red budget" today, the damage is severe. How can we possibly secure philanthropic support in an environment where our public sector leadership uses the forced closure of the zoo in such a transparent political manner?

We all know that in time, buildings, exhibits and museums can be rebuilt. (Even after their temporary closure or the threat thereof.) However, the damage to the region's most precious assets could be harder to repair. The compassion, trust and dedication of all of the stakeholders that work tirelessly to support these institutions will be harder to reinvigorate than you can imagine.

Our zoo's mission has been supported by a partnership between the public and private sectors. This partnership is built upon a foundation of trust between the parties. We have all worked hard to do our part. I want to believe it has been worth it.

We need to resolve all of this before people's hope and faith in this community are lost forever. In the meantime, I am simply numb and brokenhearted.