U’s partnership with Minnesota Zoo threatened by cuts

The Legislature is considering a 15 percent cut to its zoo appropriation.

Ashley Aram

State House and Senate bills are proposing trimming funding for the Minnesota Zoo, and âÄìâÄì along with the more than 2,900 animals that reside there âÄî University of Minnesota students have a stake in the cuts.
The zoo currently receives about $6.2 million per year from the state, accounting for 29 percent of its annual budget, Minnesota Zoo Director and CEO Lee Ehmke said.
âÄúIt used to be 60 percent,âÄù Ehmke said, adding that the zoo has weathered the decrease by being more self-sufficient with earned revenue and contributions.
âÄúBut we know thereâÄôs a limit to how far that can go.âÄù
While the cuts could impact the public and its zoo-goers, the University has a special relationship with the zoo that could see changes.
The College of Veterinary Medicine works on multiple levels with the Minnesota Zoo âÄìâÄì zoo vets double as adjunct professors and, inversely, University vets consult and help treat the animals.
University veterinarians do everything from scoping turtles for shell injuries to surgical procedures and ultrasounds, said Micky Trent, associate professor and vice chairwoman of the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine.
Fourth-year students also do clinical rotations at the zoo, and many student groups use it as a resource.
âÄúWhen IâÄôm going down to consult with [the zoo], we will often take our students so they have that exposure,âÄù Trent said. âÄúTheyâÄôve been very supportive of having our zoo club and zoo groups tour the zoo, so they do provide a perspective thatâÄôs important.âÄù
With the Senate bill proposing a 15 percent cut and the House bill proposing 10 percent, Ehmke hopes the final result will be closer to the House proposal. The bills will be hashed out in conference committee in coming weeks.
âÄúAt the 10 percent level … we will essentially manage,âÄù Ehmke said. âÄúBut once beyond that, weâÄôre looking at layoffs and/or reductions in what we can offer the public.âÄù
Trent was unsure where any cuts would fall but said they could impact the relationship with the University. Zoo animals are a lifetime commitment, she said, and treatments are costly.
âÄúThe interaction will continue, but [zoo vets] may not be able to provide more of the expensive diagnostic and therapeutic procedures that we interact with them on,âÄù Trent said.
The zoo has gotten a lot of new money in recent years from Legacy Funding, so total state money to the zoo has increased in the past decade, said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who authored the House bill.
With the HouseâÄôs 10 percent plan, the zoo will not have to close any major exhibit, McNamara said. âÄúThat was a goal of ours because the zoo is doing very well.âÄù
For Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, who will be discussing the final bill in the conference committee, itâÄôs not just about cuts from the general fund.
The zooâÄôs funding comes from a number of different sources, said Gerlach, who is carrying several bills for the zoo that seek other sources of funding to make up for the cuts.
He said a voter-approved sales tax hike and proceeds from the state lottery have previously gone to the zoo.