Sometime this week, Buffalo Zoo President Donna M. Fernandes will meet with her staff to decide which animals must be shipped out of town if the zoo loses its $1.4 million subsidy from Erie County.
County Executive Joel A. Giambra has warned that all discretionary funding will be eliminated from the proposed budget he is due to submit Dec. 10 unless county and state legislators add 1 percentage point to the sales tax.
But contingency plans for the zoo's animals must be made before then, Fernandes said.
The zoo, which would be forced to lay off half its employees if Giambra's so-called "red budget" is adopted, cannot wait to see how many keepers will remain on the payroll Jan. 1 before finding new homes for many specimens, she said.
"My number one concern is the welfare of the animals," said Fernandes, a nationally respected zoologist. "I just don't think we can maintain the collection in a humane manner with one out of two employees gone.
"I would rather see animals sent to other facilities than see their safety and the safety of our keepers compromised."
Finding credentialed zoos or parks willing to accept additional animals is a complicated, time-consuming process, and once it begins, the zoo might not be able to turn back, she said.
She also is worried about her employees, who may not learn until days before Christmas whether their jobs will continue next year.
Fernandes speaks from experience. She was with Boston's Franklin Park Zoo in 1991 when funding problems led it to close the older and smaller of its two facilities and to get rid of many animals.
A state budget crisis two years later cost Franklin Park $1 million of its $3 million operating grant as well as its national accreditation, which it regained after a two-year struggle.
"People always think the worst can't happen, but occasionally it does," Fernandes said. "It's a really sad thing to go through. When you lose your professional standing, no one will send animals to you on loan, and the staff leaves in droves."
Sacrificing animals and workers to a budget standoff would be a bitter pill for Fernandes, who after arriving four years ago engineered a massive reconstruction project that is almost one-third complete.
The promise of a $70 million makeover saved the zoo's accreditation and has led to an upswing in memberships and attendance.
"It's frustrating," Fernandes said. "Revenues are up, attendance is up."
Operating expenses, meanwhile, have been cut to the bone. The zoo is making do with seven fewer employees than in 2002, and its annual expenses have risen just $18,000 since then.
"Our reward is being told, 'Half of you must go,' " she said. "I can't imagine that if a for-profit business showed improvement in all areas it would be facing layoffs."
The zoo's $1.4 million was the largest of $5.6 million in county operating subsidies distributed to about 50 cultural organizations this year. The county Cultural Resources Advisory Board recommended a similar amount for the zoo next year, followed by $998,000 for the Buffalo Museum of Science and $710,000 for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.