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At the Buffalo Zoo, smaller suddenly looks better.

Barely five months ago, the nation's third-oldest zoo was clinging to the vision of a spectacular new $160 million home on the Inner Harbor. But the dream went up in smoke -- torched by neighborhood opposition and the apathy of public officials and prospective funding sources.

As a result, the 125-year-old Delaware Park institution lowered its sights from the nine-figure investment to a strategy of carefully targeted capital improvements in the six-figure range.

The new mantra: Develop low-cost exhibits with maximum drawing power while a long-term master plan for the present facility is cobbled together.

Exhibit A is a tentative plan for one of the bear grottoes, a set of rocky outdoor displays with pools, set off by a deep moat and inhabited by polar and spectacled bears.

In Japan, people go up mountains to watch macaques play in volcanic hot springs and then, after leaving the water, turn instantly into furry, frolicking frostballs. In line with the zoo's more modest expectations, the same monkeyshines may be on display soon in an outmoded bear pit that was left vacant when the others were remodeled last year.

Although an outdoor snow monkey exhibit is merely in the discussion stage, it is an example of the zoo's new philosophy. Zoo officials say it makes good sense on several counts:

The zoo is trying to regroup after being forced to abandon its Inner Harbor plan, and is working to devise innovative ways to keep visitors coming through the gates until the long-range plan is implemented.

"Simply holding on is not going to cut it," Brian P. Brady, chairman of the Master Planning Committee, told the zoological society board recently.

"The question is, how do we invest wisely over the next two to three years, knowing the master plan is not in place?"

The answer, he said, is incremental investments of no more than $500,000 each in "dynamic" short-term exhibits that would have strong public appeal.

Frederick L. Paine, interim zoo president, calculated that the macaque exhibit under discussion would return about $250,000 a year on an investment of $400,000.

A little creative thinking might help preserve the zoo's professional standing -- at least for the time being. When an American Zoo and Aquarium Association accrediting team drops in later this year, it will expect to see strong signs of future improvement at the Delaware Park site.

County officials are waiting for the zoo to outline plans for $2 million in capital funds allocated by former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski before he left office in December.

"We need to be able to go back to our public and private partners and say we have a plan," Brady said.

The zoo board will dispatch a delegation in the coming weeks to lay out the short-term blueprint for Gorski's successor, Joel A. Giambra, and the Legislature.

Moving the highly active snow monkeys to a natural outdoor setting should please critics of the primate area in the ancient Main Building, where lesser apes and monkeys live in outdated, malodorous cages.

A companion outdoor exhibit for the zoo's snow leopards, currently caged in the feline section of the Main Building, also is under discussion.

"Both species thrive in this kind of climate," Paine noted. "We'd be moving a fairly large primate out of the primate house and a fairly large cat out of the feline house."

Such an exhibit would follow the current trend of grouping animals by biome, or geographic area. The macaques and snow leopards would join the Asian biome.

The rocky grotte location, which has been vacant since neighboring grottoes were refurbished for polar bears and spectacled bears, could be easily and inexpensively adapted for the monkeys.

After watching its relocation plan fizzle under withering criticism from opponents, the zoo board is preparing for extensive public involvement in assembling a master plan for the current site.

A consultant will be hired in the near future to guide the process, which Brady says could last up to 18 months. It may take as long as 10 years to carry out the plan.

Zoo officials estimate it will cost at least $24 million to bring the antiquated zoo up to contemporary zoological standards.

"Before, we had a product and tried to sell it. In this case, we'll be asking the public what should be in the package," Paine told the board.

"I think it's going to lead to a more dynamic zoo," Brady said.

Advertisements soon will be placed in trade publications for candidates to succeed Thomas E. Garlock, who stepped down last week after 4 1/2 years as zoo president. Paine, who was vice president of operations before replacing Garlock on an interim basis, said he is interested in the position.

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