Putting on a fresh face at the BR Zoo

At 44 years old, BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo is starting to go through its first set of growing pains, and park officials say they are working on several efforts to ensure a strong future for the park.

“We’re a very young zoo when compared to zoos around the country,” zoo director Phil Frost said. “Many of them are 90 to 100 years old.”

The East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission commissioners say they want the zoo to grow into a nationally renowned destination — a crown jewel for the parish’s much-lauded parks system.

The zoo generally gets good reviews online, but it isn’t as recognizable as other cities’ zoos.

“We want to be something the community can be proud of,” Frost said.

Though it has more than four decades under its belt, Frost said perspective is important to understand the challenges that the zoo faces.

“Standards have changed and the public’s expectations have changed,” Frost said.

This year, the zoo is setting out on three separate planning efforts — the development of new strategic and business plans as well as an update of its master plan — last approved in 2006.

“Those documents will help us determine where we will go with the future,” Frost said. “To me, that’s a very exciting thing.”

The zoo is in the middle of a $150,000 overhaul of the former elephant exhibit, which is being turned into an exhibit for Indian Rhinos. The zoo is working with the San Diego Zoo to acquire a male Indian rhino for the new feature. The project was funded by Friends of the Baton Rouge Zoo, a nonprofit that helps support the zoo’s operations.

Last year, the zoo moved its last elephant to Washington, D.C., which meant for the first time since its opening the zoo was elephantless — a situation created out of the “growing pains” the zoo is trying to address.

The 1960s-era elephant enclosure held a maximum of two elephants, but because of the social nature of elephants, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires at least three elephants for accreditation, which it maintained by closing the elephant exhibit.

The zoo also has been working to enhance the overall atmosphere. An airboat has been placed near the boardwalk between the Zoo’s L’Aquarium de Louisiane and the Otter Pond to provide a photo opportunity for visitors. An outdated spider monkey exhibit has been demolished.

“Those are just a few things happening right now,” Frost said.

The zoo draws more than 250,000 visitors annually. While attendance has been down in 2014 due to unusually cold and icy weather, leaders say they expect to get back on track in the spring.

The zoo is beginning to track ZIP codes to have a clearer picture of its visitors’ demographics. That information will be used to target marketing efforts and help with educational programming.

Located about 15 minutes from downtown, the zoo is close to Baton Rouge’s Metro Airport — a potential draw for visitors.

But Frost and others at BREC know they need to do more to promote it as a tourist destination while also focusing on the community that supports it.

“There are a lot of questions that we have to answer,” Frost said.

About $7.2 million of BREC’s “Imagine Your Parks” funding that voters approved in 2004 went toward zoo improvements, including the construction of an Asian exhibit, parking and lighting improvements, and a remodeling of the education building.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission recently set aside for the zoo $5.2 million of its capital improvements budget that comes from a tax whose renewal voters supported Saturday, but Superintendent Carolyn McKnight noted the funding doesn’t come close to covering the costs of necessary upgrades.

“We’re going to have to do more to reimagine a first-rate zoo,” she said. “It’s important.”

Frost said he agrees the zoo can’t rely only on the funding it gets through tax dollars.

“You don’t have a world-class zoo spending $5 million every 10 years,” he said. “There’s no way we’ll improve the Baton Rouge Zoo to the level that people want just by using tax dollars.”

On the educational side, the zoo has been offering summer camps and other opportunities for kids to learn about wildlife and conservation.

For the past two years, the summer camps have been at capacity.

This year, one of the 10 sold out in a matter of hours. By the end of the week, seven others also were filled.

“It tells me the people really do love the zoo camp,” Frost said. “It says our education department is really meeting the needs of the community.”