The Franklin Park Zoo has been improving itself incrementally for decades. However slowly, it has inched evermore toward becoming the cultural resource that director John Linehan tells people it can be.
Linehan started at the zoo as a laborer 28 years ago, and he likes to say he and the zoo grew up together. In 1990, a decade after he began working there, the zoo was clocking near 200,000 visitors a year. Today attendance is nearing triple that number.
By Memorial Day, Linehan hopes, the zoo will release a new master plan that aims to tie together its existing assets with new exhibits and restore old ones - a $60 million reconfiguration that could go a long way toward putting the 96-year-old institution on a footing with other big city zoos once again.
"It's been a long time since the zoo has been a major cultural player in the region, we're talking decades, but we're getting there," said Linehan in a Reporter interview earlier this month.
This spring though, Linehan is still on a budget. Though donations are still strong and growing each year, Gov. Deval Patrick's recent 9C cuts took $200,000 out of the zoo's income and more cuts are threatening.
"These are dire times and I realize that," said Linehan. "But I do think the zoo is one of those factors that can take us out of it. Many, many zoos were built during the depression under F.D.R."
Linehan is turning to a more affordable new exhibit to draw in crowds beginning - with luck - this Memorial Day. The zoo plans to build a new outdoor birdcage and fly in 400 budgerigars from a breeder in Texas in the next few months. The budgerigar is an Australian species nicknamed 'budgie' that is familiar to most Americans as the common pet parakeet.
Sometimes blue, sometimes green, the birds are noted for their intrepid nature toward humans, and that is precisely why Linehan thinks people - particularly children - will love walking among hundreds of the birds.
"People will go home with pictures of their kids with budgies on their heads and arms," he said. "I think it will be embedded in their heads for the rest of their lives."
Also incorporated into the exhibit, to be located along the "Outback Trail," will be black swans and Cape Baron geese, each with their own cages.
The Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Mass., run by the same non-profit as the Franklin Park Zoo&emdash;Zoo New England, will be host to a new gibbon exhibit.
While the budgie exhibit will be small in comparison to several other zoo attractions, Linehan has high hopes for the upcoming zoo master plan, scheduled for public release on Memorial Day. The zoo is already breaking attendance records each year, with 511,000 visitors in FY 2006 and 525,000 in FY 2007, and Linehan believes the right investments could create a tipping point for the zoo. In 1920, when admission was free, the zoo had an estimated 2 million visitors. If an attendance of 1 million yearly visitors could be reached, the institution would be considered a regional zoo.
"We're poised for big change when we get to this realization of the master plan," he said. "It's going to be very exciting, but not pie in the sky. It just feels like we're making more friends all the time, and it really is a community effort to make a great zoo."
Features of the plan will include expanding the lion holding area to allow enough space for an entire pride of lions, remaking the outdoor western lowlands gorilla exhibit, building a new gift shop closer to the exit, removing toxic lead from the giant outdoor bird cage where the Andean condors are now kept - so small birds can roost there again - and several other improvements.
To pay for it all, the zoo is hoping to raise $10 million from private donors in five years to add to a $50 million infusion currently earmarked for the zoo by the state legislature.
If Gov. Patrick approves the spending, it could be the largest single investment in the zoo ever.
When the state's Metropolitan District Commission (now part of the Department of Conservation and Recreation) took over control of the zoo from the city in 1958, many of its displays were abandoned or razed, such as the bear dens now located outside the zoo's fence and the elephant house which is long gone.
Since then, the largest cash investment has been the Tropical Forest Pavilion, which, after several cost overruns and construction delays, was completed in 1989 for $23.5 million, shortly before the zoo was handed over to the Commonwealth Zoological Corporation in 1991, which was later reorganized and merged with the Stone Zoo as Zoo New England. More recently, the lion exhibit opened in 1997 at a cost of $2.7 million.
Raising $10 million from the public will be a first for Linehan and his staff, but it's a challenge Linehan said they are ready for.
"It will be challenging, challenging yet realistic," he said. "And it really would change this zoo forever."