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What's The Future of the Honolulu Zoo?

Flickr / Daniel Ramirez
Flickr / Daniel Ramirez

2016 hasn’t been a great year for the Honolulu Zoo. The city-run facility lost its accreditation back in March and is now looking for its sixth zoo director since 2009. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.

Despite being in a prime location, steps from the state’s biggest tourist draw Waik?k?, the Honolulu zoo is struggling. A little more than half a million people went to the zoo this past fiscal year, a 15-percent decrease since 2013.

“It’s a clear downward trend that’s definitely on our focus,” said Guy Kaulukukui, the Director of Honolulu’s Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees zoo operations. Another project he’s focused on: finding a replacement for Baird Fleming, who unexpectedly resigned as zoo director last week.

“I think the pieces are in place,” Kaulukukui said. “We just have to be very smart and thorough about putting together a highly qualified pool of candidates to enhance the probability that the person we finally select is the right person and is here for the long run with us.”

That last part is important. High leadership turnover has resulted in five different zoo directors in just seven years. That, coupled with inconsistent and unstable funding, led the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to yank its accreditation of Honolulu Zoo earlier this year. The city plans to reapply in 2018.

Still, some remain optimistic. David Earles is the executive director of the Honolulu Zoo Society. That nonprofit supports the city-run facility and handle’s the zoo’s fundraising and membership base.

“The future from our perspective is very bright, despite the struggles,” Earles said. “Loss of accreditation is a big thing, but let’s not waste to crisis. Let’s find opportunities within it to make us stronger.”

All of this comes after a majority of voters passed a charter amendment that would establish a fund for the zoo. The money, about $6 million, would come from half of one percent of property tax revenues each year. Paul Dyson says that’s a step in the right direction. He’s the president and chairman of the Honolulu Zoo Society board of directors. But he worries funding is still vulnerable because it’s under the city.

“They have potholes they have to deal with, they have sewer systems, they have homeless people,” said Dyson. “When push comes to shove, they’re going to get lots of phone calls if the sewer system isn’t working, lots of phone calls if the pot holes aren’t being fixed. But the zoo doesn’t get nearly as much pressure to keep it up.”

Dyson hopes Honolulu will consider following the lead of zoos across the country: transferring the responsibility from the city to a public-private partnership.

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.
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