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'One of those gosh darn decisions': $50M ask for Valley Zoo upgrades slashed in half by council

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The Edmonton Valley Zoo will receive only half of the requested money from city council to renew existing infrastructure and meet licensing requirements.

As council continues to deliberate the 2023-26 budget cycle, a series of proposals were brought forward to reduce capital expenditures Friday.

By a slim 7-6 vote, council decided to slash the approximately $50 million needed by the zoo to initiate the next phase of the Nature's Wild Backyard expansion by half.

Initially, Coun. Jo-Anne Wright pitched scrapping the entire project altogether. An amendment to give the zoo $25 million to simply meet critical infrastructure requirements was then put forward by Coun. Michael Janz.

"I do see the educational value of the zoo," Wright said. "But I think at this time, this is something that needs to be deferred. Not necessarily cancelled, but just put off to a date when we are maybe in a better economic situation."

Roger Jevne, zoo spokesperson, told council "several" animal habitats do not meet Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) standards. The Nature's Wild Backyard plan included replacing aging infrastructure with a new expansion.

"We have some that we've got an exemption on because they were being replaced by Nature's Wild Backyard," he explained.

"So we would have to go back and determine what our strategy would be for those enclosures and those species and come up with a new plan, which could be having to rehome those species or trying to retrofit or expand their current exhibits."

The project, first proposed in 2005, has already been delayed twice. Back then, the zoo anticipated it would need $5 million.

It was then divided into two phases to spread the work and cost over time. The first phase of Nature's Wild Backyard, which opened the Red Panda Habitat and Urban Farm, was completed in 2017.

A different budget ask, which has yet to be considered by council, is also seeking $10.9 million to repair enclosures for several other animals, including Lucy the elephant, birds of prey and zebras.

"Certainly, this is one of those gosh darn decisions," Janz said. "This reduction would still preserve many of those critical pieces we need."

Adam Laughlin, deputy city manager of integrated infrastructure services, cautioned councillors that if the shovel-ready project is scaled back, until there is a full project reassessment, it is not known if there would be surefire cost savings.

"Because we would be actually investing in existing infrastructure, not sort of an investment in the plans for Nature's Wild Backyard, there's a lot of uncertainties," Laughlin added. "Because we are on the fly identifying a budget amount to carry out work that would be required without doing a design."

Jevne echoed those concerns, saying that some utilities installed during phase one were built temporarily in anticipation of a full replacement during the project's second phase. Leaving them without upgrades would pose a risk to the zoo, he added.

Before the vote, Coun. Sarah Hamilton urged the consideration of the reputational risk of losing CAZA accreditation to both the city and the zoo. She also said zoos are an important way of conserving species as the world faces biodiversity loss.

"When you stand before an animal and understand in your lifetime, they may not exist anymore, that turns your audience into advocates," Hamilton said as she fought back tears.

Coun. Ashley Salvador disagreed, saying the answer to solving animal habitat loss was nature-based solutions and concrete climate action. In her view, the return on investment for zoo upgrades was low.

Both her and Coun. Erin Rutherford said city council should have a larger discussion in the new year about what the future strategy for the zoo should look like.

"The true elephant in the room right now is that the zoo is already giving us a bad reputation in some of the animals we've brought in," Rutherford said.

"The fact that we haven't updated our master plan since 2005, and I think the world has evolved in the way it thinks [about zoos]." 

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