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Wine, bubbly conversation and contributions flowed freely at the Buffalo Zoo's black-tie gala last month.

The night, filled with fun and philanthropy -- the affair netted $55,000 -- obscured a harsh fact: The nation's third-oldest zoo is showing its age, and major decisions must soon be made concerning this popular Western New York institution.

Its very survival may be at stake.

Two factors underscore the urgency -- a deteriorating infrastructure and the need to update exhibits to modern zoological standards. They add up to a multimillion-dollar dilemma for the zoo and ultimately for taxpayers, who would foot most of the bill.

Sometime in the next few months, the board of directors of the Buffalo Zoological Society will settle on one of three long-range strategies:

A basic renovation of the present facilities costing $24 million to $30 million.

A more extensive overhaul, at $50 million to $55 million.

Relocating the zoo to an as-yet unspecified site. The price tag: at least $90 million.

Once a path is chosen, zoo leaders must set a timetable and sell the idea to government and business leaders and zoo members.

Had they strayed from the candle-lit pathways, the tuxedoed men and fashionable women could have seen for themselves the evidence of trouble ahead.

Near the bear pits, dirt fill covered a freshly repaired water main, part of an underground maze of pipes that is nearly 100 years old and badly in need of replacement. A city crew was able to fix the leak without digging up half of the grounds, which are municipally owned. But patchwork repairs may not work much longer.

As they dined in the big white party tent, guests could look across the Center Court to the nearly 60-year-old Main Building. It is both a historic monument to the Works Progress Administration, which built it during the Great Depression, and an outdated relic from the days when housing wild animals in cramped cages was accepted practice.

Although the lions and tigers moved outdoors to their 14,000-square foot habitat years ago, snow leopards and other smaller cats remain pent up in the barred, concrete-floor cages.

Even the building's Tropical Rain Forest and Gorilla Habitat, a showcase exhibit that is merely 17 years old, has problems. Air quality is poor, and the glass-walled enclosure is less than ideal for the great apes, which most modern zoos keep in naturalistic outdoor settings.

At the opposite end of the tent, where several walkways converge, an Andean condor watched the patrons from its perch in a big, steel-barred bird cage. The great vulture, which nature made to soar above mountain peaks, is not free to fly even a few feet.

The problems are beginning to overshadow the zoo's solid reputation for animal conservation and husbandry, as evidenced by several highly successful breeding programs, its educational successes and its clean, colorfully landscaped appearance.

"We have a terrific team playing in a substandard stadium," said Gerald D. Aquilina, general curator.

And in the zoo world of the 21st century, leaking water lines and inappropriate animal displays will not pass muster.

The point was driven home by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in its most recent accreditation report, issued two years ago. Although the zoo kept its good standing, the association faulted the "menagerie-style" Main Building, which it labeled "antiquated both in terms of maintenance and in how the animal collection is presented to the public."

Modernizing the structure, which would require "tremendous capital," might not be enough, the report implied.

"Working through this problem will be extremely challenging, but the message this building is sending to the public and the minimal space it provides the animals mandate further evaluation," the association warned.

Translation: If the zoo does not address the issue, accreditation may be withheld at some future point. The next review will be in 2000.

Not all criticism has come from afar.

Many exhibits "are not set up to display animals' natural behavior, and a lot of people I respect are uncomfortable with that," said Thomas E. Garlock, zoo executive director.

The national group did not concern itself with other problems plaguing the zoo: The lack of room to expand, inadequate parking facilities and what Garlock terms "weather sensitivity."

The facility occupies 21 1/2 acres of exhibit space and two acres for parking in the northeast corner of Delaware Park, where it is hemmed in by Frederick Law Olmsted's revered 19th century landscape design. The absence of cover on the grounds outside the Main Building and the long walk from the parking lot make the zoo a poor draw during cold weather.

"We always need a strong summer season to carry us through the year," Garlock noted.

With all of this in mind, he and Donna Gioia, chairman of the Zoological Society board, asked the zoo staff last spring to study the planning options. Three alternatives emerged.

A basic renovation would be a $24 million to $30 million Band-Aid. Garlock characterized it as a "paint-up, fix-up program with new sewers and plumbing."

But the plan would carry a hidden price. Many exotic, expensive-to-keep species would disappear from the collection, narrowing the zoo's appeal and making it "less distinct in its educational role," the staff said.

A more aggressive overhaul of the facility, costing $50 million to $55 million, would add "some pretty exciting new exhibits, and update some of the old ones," Garlock said. But it would not address the chronic lack of parking and weather-sensitive attendance.

Building an entirely new zoo at a different site is the only course that would answer all existing needs. But it would cost at least $90 million, a figure that assumes land would be donated.

"We're not talking about a physically huge new zoo," Garlock said. "We would probably be looking for 50 acres for exhibitry, another 10 for parking and additional acreage for potential expansion."

Zoo leaders are proceeding cautiously. Master plans have come and gone, Mrs. Gioia noted, but none has been carried through to completion. The last, developed in the 1970s at a cost of $100,000, led to construction of the gorilla and lion and tiger habitats but not much else.

Moreover, each of the alternatives proposed by the staff would require public backing at a time when taxpayers are being asked to fund a new Rich Stadium lease for the Buffalo Bills and at least part of the Shea's Performing Arts Center expansion and the Darwin Martin estate restoration.

No zoo or aquarium has accomplished a major renovation or relocated without public funding, Garlock pointed out.

Nevertheless, the zoo can't afford to dither over a future course.

"We must make a decision in the coming months," Mrs. Gioia said.

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