Lawmakers, corporations and members of the public need to step up to contribute to the Buffalo Zoo's planned arctic habitat, or the zoo will lose the last of its iconic polar bears.
The loss of the two remaining polar bears would be devastating for lovers of the zoo, and would come just as the institution finally is committed to building an exhibit for the bears that meets modern zookeeping standards.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has cited the current polar bear exhibit as a "major concern," and could remove the bears if association officials believe the zoo is not making progress on its plan to improve exhibit conditions.
The zoo has raised $12.2 million toward the $18 million project, which includes a new entrance plaza.
But Donna M. Fernandes, the zoo's president and CEO, and other zoo leaders are scrambling to raise enough money to keep the project on track after years of delays related to evolving financial priorities and changes in care guidelines.
It's a shame the Buffalo Zoo is on the verge of losing its polar bears just as the Delaware Park institution finally is ready to move the creatures out of their outdated concrete habitat, the Depression-era Bear Pits.
Polar bears are a prime attraction for zoos, but they are expensive and difficult to maintain in captivity and many zoos no longer keep them.
The Buffalo Zoo has held as many as eight polar bears on display at one time, and had five bears as recently as six years ago. But, beginning in August 2006, four of the zoo's five polar bears died.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a 2007 preliminary report that the deaths of three of the bears raised concerns about their care and conditions at the Buffalo Zoo, while zoo officials responded that the bears died of disease or natural causes.
The zoo's surviving Anana, a female, was joined in 2009 by Nanuq, a male.
Zoo officials have talked since 2001 about building an arctic habitat, but financing concerns, among other issues, have delayed its construction far too long.
The zoo finally has proposed building a $14 million arctic habitat, with a $4 million entrance plaza, and the zoo last year asked Erie County for $6 million toward the project.
Former County Executive Chris Collins, to his credit, supported the zoo's request, but Erie County legislators scaled back the commitment to $3 million.
Anana and Nanuq are scheduled to be temporarily relocated from the Buffalo Zoo, as the zoo prepares for construction of the new exhibit. But their removal could be made permanent if the rest of the project funding doesn't come through.
The loss of the polar bears would leave a deep hole in the zoo. Zoo supporters have to do whatever they can to support the project -- starting with County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and legislators, who should provide the other $3 million requested by the zoo. Full funding by the county will still leave the zoo more than $2 million short of its $18 million goal. Without a concerted effort by corporate and private citizens, the zoo will lose one of its centerpiece attractions.