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Got a Favorite Zoo Animal? Now's Your Chance to Sponsor It

Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

City officials are hoping a new program will help the Honolulu Zoo recover from a series of setbacks in recent years. Over the last five years, Hawai’i’s largest zoo has suffered drops in attendance and revenue, and even lost accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Last month, the city launched a sponsorship program encouraging community involvement in zoo operations. HPR’s Ku’uwehi Hiraishi reports.

2-year-old Hugo Kahili-Heede is unbuckled from his stroller by his grandmother Tua Heede so he can get a closer look at the white-handed gibbons.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Tua Heede and her 2-year-old grandson Hugo Kahili-Heede enjoy the white-handed gibbon exhibit during Hugo's first visit to the zoo.

“This is Hugo’s first time here,” says Heede, “He was excited when I told him I was going to take him to see the animals.”

A visit to the Honolulu Zoo off Kapahulu Avenue in Waikiki is a family tradition for Heede. She would bring her kids here quite a bit.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
All primates are monkeys to 2-year-old Hugo Kahili-Heede. Here, he enjoys watching the white-handed gibbons swing on the bamboo fortresses built for them at the Honolulu Zoo.

For many keiki in Hawai’i, a trip to the Honolulu Zoo is their first chance to see animals like monkeys, elephants, and for this group of students from Lincoln Elementary…flamingos.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Students from Lincoln Elementary School pepper the zoo guide with questions about the American flamingo - an animal they mistakenly thought were peacocks at first.

Wilson Neal is one of the chaperones for today’s field trip.   

“Besides just watching a film or reading a book, they actually get to experience and see it alive, an animal, ‘Oh, we talked about that in class,’” says Neal.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
American flamingo exhibit at the Honolulu Zoo.

With more than 900 animals on its 42-acre property, the city-run Honolulu Zoo sees anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 visitors every day. Zoo operations depend largely on an annual $6.8 million from the city, but that only covers half of what it needs to be fully operational.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
The elephant exhibit at the Honolulu Zoo is among the more popular ones. Visitors can swing by around 1:30 p.m. daily to see zoo staff feed the elephants.

Here’s Honolulu City Councilwoman, Kymberly Marcos-Pine.

“It’s time that we be creative to find new revenue sources that don’t hurt local people’s pocket books,” says Marcos-Pine.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Private-public partnerships are a trending form of zoo finance for zoos across the country.

She spearheaded a zoo sponsorship program based largely on public-private partnership models she found in zoos across the nation.

“We cannot continue to run the city the way we always have, where we just always depend on the tax payer to carry the heavy burden of funding the city,” says Marco-Pine.

The program offers the public an opportunity to pay for more of what they want. A primate exhibit fan? The program allows you to finance the animal exhibit and in return be recognized for that contribution. Here’s new Honolulu Zoo Director Linda Santos.

Credit City & County of Honolulu
City & County of Honolulu
Linda Santos (left of the podium, decked in lei) is the sixth zoo director in six years. Santos has been with the Honolulu Zoo since 1986, when she started in the commissary preparing animal diets.

“The sponsorship program, what it will do, is it’ll give people an opportunity if they want to sponsor like a corporation wants to sponsor an exhibit or maybe it could be something as small as redoing park benches – something that will enhance visitor experience,” says Santos.

Santos sees the sponsorship program as an opportunity to give the surrounding community a greater stake in the future of the zoo.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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