Future of Franklin Park Zoo remains in limbo

By 
Mike Deehan and Gintautas Dumcius, Contributing Editors
Jul. 16, 2009

A fiscal tug-of-war between Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature over the future of the Franklin Park Zoo has left the institution’s fate in the balance and some in Dorchester talking about the zoo’s significance to the community and wondering about the effect of it being permanently shuttered.
In the budget the Legislature sent to the governor late last month, the Franklin Park facility and its sister zoo in Stoneham had been allotted $6.5 million, but Patrick, using his veto, trimmed the funding to $2.5 million, saying that an override would undercut his plan to keep health insurance coverage for 30,000 legal immigrants. 
Over the weekend, zoo officials let it be known that the governor’s $4 million cut would probably force them to eliminate jobs, euthanize animals, or, worst case, shut down the facilities. Responding to strong public opposition to the cuts, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said that he expected an override this week, but as time went on momentum for that move had slowed and DeLeo was backing off his Monday comments.
“If the veto is overridden, the Legislature is making a choice in favor of the zoo and against health care,” Patrick told the Reporter. “I come down in favor of health care for working people.”
Lawmakers said revenue projections must first be consulted, and vetoes, if any, will be considered later this month.
Retail locations and restaurants in the Blue Hill Avenue area of Dorchester-Roxbury would not be happy to see the zoo close its doors. Merchants, while expressing concern that the zoo’s possible closure would harm their business over the long term, conceded that the zoo did little to influence their customer base. More alarming to them would be the effect a closure would have on the Grove Hall community as a whole.
“It will affect [us],” said Nicole Niccoletta, of Stash’s Pizza at the corner of Columbia Road and Blue Hill Ave. “You kind of feel bad. It’s a nice thing to have in the area.”
Rodney Kornegay, manager of the Hip Zepi USA clothing store across the avenue from the zoo’s gates, wondered how the neighborhood would suffer without the social benefits provided by the city’s only zoo. “A lot of local kids get jobs over there for the summertime. What’s going to happen with that?” he asked.
More directly affected, and vocally upset, by the situation were a group of children from the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church’s Be Safe Summer Camp who were lined up the other day outside the zoo’s gates.
Tiara Daniels, saying it was her third trip to the zoo, was “a little bit sad because this is like the only zoo in Boston really close and you can go and see the animals.” Groups like the St. Mark’s summer program benefit from the zoo’s proximity and relatively low prices, two factors which help maintain Franklin Park’s diverse clientele.
“If they raise prices, then a lot of people won’t really want to go because then they probably don’t want to pay more money,” Daniels said. “All the animals probably won’t have somewhere to live and then they would have to die so probably I would feel really sad,” added ten-year-old Vani Cardoso.
“There’s lot of tough cuts in this budget. The zoo has acknowledged that the animals would be safe,” Patrick said, referring to zoo officials backtracking from earlier statements that the animals would have to be euthanized. “It’s upsetting to me and a lot of people in the general public that they seem to be using these sorts of scare tactics to drive the budget debate.” 
Patrick has filed a supplemental spending bill that sets aside $70 million for coverage for the legal immigrants, also known as “aliens with special status.” Their coverage ends this month unless lawmakers pass the plan.
Dorchester Rep. Martin Walsh told the State House News Service, “I have some concerns with supporting the zoo override when we have overrides for people with mental health, disabilities … I think there are a lot of things that people could pick and choose.” 
“A lot of things had to be cut,” said state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry. “We need to look at how it is we’re going to be able to restore some of the cuts.” The zoo is an “important facility,” she said, “but, again, everyone has to make cuts. Everyone has to live on less,” she said. “I do think people may have jumped the gun in saying the animals will be euthanized or killed. They would not just do that to the animals. People may have overreacted.”