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With the plan for a new waterfront zoo temporarily shelved, Buffalo Zoo officials are faced with a more urgent and immediate problem -- how to win accreditation next year when the Delaware Park facility is re-evaluated by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Because the zoo is such an important regional asset, providing the support and funding needed to retain its status as a fully accredited, professionally recognized facility should be a high priority for the entire Western New York community.

During the last accreditation in 1995 the zoo barely squeaked through. It was faulted for its aging buildings with antiquated cages for housing and displaying some of its animal collection. It's difficult to argue with those findings. If you are looking for state of the art, the Buffalo Zoo is not the place to start.

Ever since that last inspection, zoo officials have concentrated on finding a site and funding for a new $160 million facility on the Buffalo waterfront. Unfortunately, with that effort now sidetracked by insufficient financial and political support, the zoo is without a master plan for upgrading existing facilities that so desperately need to be modernized.

So the time has come to shift gears. Zoo officials need to get creative in both the planning and fund raising areas. But they need the community behind them, including individuals and groups that lobbied so tirelessly to keep the zoo in Delaware Park.

But it also needs a commitment from the city, county and state that they will not let the zoo lose accreditation because it can't afford to upgrade its aging facilities.

Zoo officials currently are talking about a plan to spruce up the main building with plantings and other cosmetic changes at a cost of about $60,000 to "soften its harsher aspects," as zoo president Thomas E. Garlock puts it. But more realistically, Garlock estimates that as much as $475,000 in improvements may be needed to convince an accreditation team that Buffalo is committed to maintaining a professional zoo.

Furthermore, the zoo board probably would have to show the team that it is preparing a master plan and procuring the funding -- estimated at $24 million minimum -- to enable it to complete a major rehabilitation project by the year 2005.

That's a big job and the community cannot expect the Zoological Society and zoo staff to save the zoo by themselves. The City of Buffalo, which owns the zoo buildings and grounds and provides 3 percent of the funding, has a direct stake in the future of the institution. So does Erie County, which contributes 28 percent of the operating budget, and New York State, which puts up 2 percent of the support.

If the zoo should fail to gain accreditation, it would not close but it would be an embarrassment for Buffalo and Western New York. It would be like fielding a scaled-down Philharmonic orchestra or sending the Buffalo Bills to the Arena League.

We can't let that happen.

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