(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
Children checked out the mandrills in the Tropical Forest exhibit in 2005.
The Franklin Park Zoo, a Boston institution that has drawn generations of city and suburban families, might be forced to close its doors and possibly euthanize some of its animals as a result of the deep budget cuts imposed by Governor Deval Patrick, zoo officials said Friday.
Without more state funding, those zoo officials said, they will run out of money by October and have to close both the Franklin Park Zoo and its smaller counterpart, the Stone Zoo in Stoneham. They would lay off most of their 165 employees and attempt to find new homes for more than 1,000 animals, the officials said.
The zoo officials, in a written statement that echoed a letter sent earlier to legislative leaders, said they would be unlikely to find homes for at least 20 percent of the animals, “requiring either destroying them, or the care of the animals in perpetuity.”
The zoos, which are run by Zoo New England and attracted nearly 570,000 visitors over the past year, are operated through a public-private partnership that is funded by taxpayers and revenues from visitors. If the partnership dissolves, as it would in October if it runs out of money, the custody of the zoos would be turned over to state officials, according to state law.
Zoo officials estimate that it would take three years and cost at least $9 million to completely shut down the zoos, and they said the state would be in charge of that process.
The Legislature had originally provided $6.5 million to the zoos – which accounts for more than half of their budget – but Patrick, using a line-item veto, cut the state funding to $2.5 million.
The head of the zoo, John Linehan, sent his letter to legislative leaders Tuesday urging them to override Patrick’s veto and effectively restore their funding. Linehan did not respond to requests for comment Friday. Instead, a private public relations company hired by the zoo released a lengthy statement.
“The only areas left to cut are in non-animal care, revenue-generating departments,” the zoo's statement reads. “This would result in a bare-bones staff that would care for the animals and the facility, but would eliminate any that would service the public.”
Even the threat of closures illustrates the far-reaching impacts of state budget cuts and the fallout they can have on those who make the decisions – in this case, Patrick. As word of the zoos crisis broke, complete with the vision of euthanized animals, Patrick, his entire cabinet, senior aides, and political advisers gathered at the governor’s estate in the Berkshires, plotting strategy for the months ahead.
“These are extremely difficult times across the state, and there have been tough cuts in every area,” a Patrick spokeswoman, Cyndi Roy, said in a statement. “This is an example of an unfortunate cut that had to be made in order to preserve core services for families struggling during the economic downturn.”
But for every cut, there is an affected constituency, and with a zoo, the users are far and wide, and the victims – exotic animals – unusually sympathetic. Perhaps for that reason, zoo officials bluntly threatened closure, and the criticism of Patrick began in earnest.
"This is just another bad decision on budget cuts, affecting working families,” Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said.
"It's a big deal,” he said of the possible closure of Franklin Park Zoo in Dorchester. “It's a great resource for the community. The zoo is an inexpensive place to spend a day in tough economic times."
The Franklin Park Zoo, which was founded in 1913, has faced closure numerous times in the past because of a lack of funding, most recently in 2002 when House lawmakers cut its funding from $6 million to $3.5 million.
Zoo officials have been lobbying House and Senate lawmakers and are hoping they can convince a two-thirds majority to override Patrick’s veto in each chamber. The Legislature is expected to begin addressing all of Patrick’s line-item vetoes, which totaled nearly $150 million, on Tuesday.
“They just can’t make the math work,” said Representative Elizabeth A. Malia, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain, speaking of the finances of Zoo New England with the cut in state funding. “It’s very upsetting. It would be a horrible, horrible loss for the community.”
The Franklin Park Zoo, located in a section of the city where Dorchester, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain come together, represents something of a touchstone for virtually anyone who grew up in Boston and walked through its majestic gates.
The zoo was a featured site in the 1980 science fiction film “Altered States,” where a Harvard professor devolves into a gorilla and goes on a rampage. It also achieved a certain notoriety in 2003, when a gorilla named Little Joe escaped from his cage and attacked a 2-year-old girl and her babysitter.
The Franklin Park Zoo was operated by city and state agencies until 1991, when a nonprofit, private corporation was founded to oversee it. The same corporation operates the Stone Zoo, which is located on a 26-acre site near Spot Pond in Stoneham. The partnership has a clause that states that if the zoos shut down, the state would have to assume control of the property and the animals.
The total operations budget for the zoos last year was $11 million, about 60 percent of which came from state funding. The remainder came through admissions, food and gift shop sales, memberships, and fund-raising.
The Globe reported Friday that a film crew is laying the groundwork to begin filming a comedy, “The Zookeeper,” starring Kevin James and Rosario Dawson, near an unused outdoor gorilla exhibit near the zoo’s rear entrance. Filming is scheduled to run from July 20 through October, and the zoo was paid a substantial location fee that zoo officials would not disclose.
“We all know it’s a tough time economically, and cuts are going to have to be made,” said Representative Linda Dorcena Forry, a Boston Democrat. “But with families losing their jobs and not able to go out of state, we have an amazing jewel here for people to visit.”
Senate President Therese Murray’s spokesman did not return requests for comment, but a high-ranking Senate source said it was among the proposals that they plan to override.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo was less definitive.
“The House is still reviewing the governor’s vetoes and deciding what action to take,” he said through a spokesman, Seth Gitell.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.
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