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The Buffalo Zoo is just the place to visit for families, especially those with small children. It's also the right sort of destination for school trips and summer-program outings. Here come the kids to check out all the beasts -- not quietly. And yes, adults find enjoyment there, too.

But, as Buffalo News reporter Tom Buckham recently outlined, the zoo has a dilemma it cannot let slide much longer. Its facilities are aging, and its grounds are too small to accommodate a modern zoo.

The most recent evaluation by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association called the Buffalo Zoo's Main Building "antiquated both in terms of maintenance and in how the animal collection is presented to the public."

Today's zoos require considerable space to exhibit animals in something like their natural habitats, both for the animals' good and to increase our appreciation of them. Tight cages are out. Buffalo's zoo has made efforts to upgrade its exhibits, but it simply doesn't have the space to give all of its animals the right kind of setting. Something must change.

Zoo officials are looking at three long-range alternatives: a relatively modest fix-up on the present grounds pegged at $30 million or less; a greater renovation going up to the $55 million mark; or a new zoo at another, unspecified location at a much higher cost than the others.

The only right answer, ultimately, is a new home for the zoo on another site -- ideally somewhere near the public land on the Buffalo waterfront, where it can become part of a mix of attractions for both Buffalonians and out-of-towners. But at first blush, the cost makes that goal seem unreachable.

It needn't be. The way to make a new zoo affordable is to make the construction and the move gradual -- a project for decades, not years, based on a long-term master plan.

In the transitional years, Buffalo would have two zoo locations, connected by shuttle buses or reachable by separate car trips using a single, same-day admission ticket.

That may sound cumbersome for the visitor, but with good planning it wouldn't be. And it's important to remember that families like zoo visits so much that having two spots to go to, not one, might actually be welcome to many, even if each only had part of a full zoo collection.

Today's Buffalo Zoo is put together so that it makes the most of its 23.5-acre location, but that's just not enough room for a modern zoo. The only way to get more room at that location is to bite into Delaware Park.

That must not be allowed. Delaware Park's design, by the most renowned landscape architect in American history, should not be tampered with any further than it already has been. The park is under pressure, as well, from the many users who want to take advantage of its green space. It would be wrong to let the zoo expand there.

The alternative of making the most of the current site is not adequate. Even with updated utilities and buildings, the zoo is likely to falter if it can't expand.

That means a new site is the only viable choice. But there's no need to move lock, stock and elephants overnight, even if that were financially feasible. And the handy, pocket-sized zoo at Parkside Avenue and Amherst Street has its charms. Why not keep it in operation, find an auxiliary location on a much larger site, and start putting the kinds of exhibits there that give animals more space?

The zoo has shown that it can create new exhibits one at a time. The gorilla habitat was a single project, undertaken and promoted on its own.

It would still probably be desirable to get the zoo eventually into one location. But by taking it one project at a time, the move could be stretched out over a quarter or even half a century.

In the meantime, there would be two zoos, alternate destinations, one compact and the other more open, each with its own specialties, its own ambiance and its own reasons to be visited.

At the start, the auxiliary zoo might offer an African grassland exhibit with the likes of antelopes and wildebeests. Or it might start out with exhibits especially attractive to children, possibly connected by a small train. How about a special exhibit of Australian wildlife? The possibilities are endless.

Think families wouldn't bother to check it out? Think again. People pay to go to game farms or petting zoos with very small collections. They flock to zoos to see just one special animal -- koalas, for instance.

Whatever happens, the zoo will need help from both governments and generous donors in the private sector. It will be difficult going because the competition for money is intense and the price tags are high. But the zoo ranks up there with other civic institutions that cannot be allowed to falter if Buffalo and its neighboring communities are to be good places to live. Remember, those noisy kids are happy kids, too.

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