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Audit may determine direction of Hogle Zoo

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The future direction of Hogle Zoo might hinge on the outcome of a state audit.

An improvement project placing people ahead of animals was among the reasons lawmakers Monday ordered a complete review of the partially taxpayer-funded attraction at the mouth of Emigration Canyon. The zoo completed a $5.8 million entry plaza this spring. Critics say the money would have been better spent to improve deteriorating animal environments.

The Legislative Management Committee's Audit Subcommittee moved the examination to the top of its priority list, voting to have the report done by Dec. 15. State auditors will examine every aspect of the zoo, including finances, management practices, master plans, animal care and location. Lawmakers will consider the findings in the 2002 Legislature.

Legislative Auditor General Wayne Welsh said state auditors know little about zoos. He might have to hire consultants to help them evaluate such things as animal health and living conditions.

Senate President Al Mansell, R-Sandy, said the public has raised "serious questions" about the zoo, but he doesn't believe auditors will find much. "I'm confident we're not going to find a lot of mismanagement. I think anybody can go back and question decisions," he said. But "I think it can help relieve people's minds if we get this done."

Craig Dinsmore, zoo executive director, is open to the audit, though zoo officials say Hogle Zoo's outlook has never been brighter. "We're absolutely convinced this will show the zoo is making prudent use of taxpayer money," he said. Nearly 40 percent of Hogle Zoo's $10.4 million annual budget comes from taxpayers.

The Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) tax accounts for $1.6 million, while the Legislature appropriated $1.9 million this year. The Utah Zoological Society owns the facility.

Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, called for the audit after becoming concerned tax revenue wasn't being spent properly.

"The zoo says it wants to be treated like a business. Sometimes I wonder if they're acting like a business," he said.

Zoo attendance has lagged the past few years despite Utah's rising population and a 300 percent spending increase for marketing and public relations. Visitors numbered 710,647 last year, down 8.5 percent from 1999.

The Humane Society of Utah criticized the zoo for remodeling its main entrance and gift shop instead of improving animal living space. "I think the audit has to address why this type of choice was made," said Craig Cook, Humane Society attorney. "(People) don't come to see an entryway. They come to see animals."

Dinsmore defended the project, saying the zoo must do things to generate some of its own revenue. A planned overhaul and tripling the size of the elephant exhibit is next on the list. But Dinsmore said the zoo "can't in good conscience invest in it if we don't know we're going to be there."

Mansell has talked about moving the zoo to Wheeler Farm. The zoo's master plan calls for continued revamping at its current location that would replace outdated facilities over the next decade. A consultant recommended $80 million be spent to renovate the landlocked 40-acre site where the zoo has existed at for 70 years.

And taxpayers might again be called upon to fund the changes. Zoo officials said the plan requires "very significant" public and private support.

Zoo management has come under fire since U.S. Department of Agriculture sanctions over poor animal living conditions and deaths nearly closed the facility down several years ago. The zoo also almost lost its American Zoo and Aquarium Association accreditation. The USDA, though, recently commended the zoo on its animal care.

"Unequivocally, at no time in the zoo's history has it been in better shape financially or personnel-wise," said James Hogle, president of the Utah Zoological Society board. Hogle's grandfather donated the land for the facility in 1931.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com