Gambling with Pandas

The Toronto Zoo has been operating like a compulsive gambler.  Like most gamblers, it’s got a system and thinks it will eventually win if it keeps playing long enough.  While on one hand, the Zoo has downplayed the risk and cost of what it’s doing, it can’t resist doubling down on a losing proposition.  But the losses are mounting and the City won’t keep buying it chips forever.

The Zoo’s system for beating the odds goes like this:  Borrow a peculiar species of animal every year and hope that it generates enough interest to sustain attendance and revenue levels that would otherwise be in decline.  They started in 1985 with panda bears, but since then, they’ve bet the farm on giant lizards, white lions, and hairless rats.

It was a way of countering the predictable loss of interest in static animal exhibits in aging facilities.  Most people are are content to see these once or twice in a lifetime, and indeed, Torontonians do visit their Zoo only one or twice on average.

Some years were better than others, but attendance has declined steadily for the past five.  After some bitterly public fights over fund raising, governance, and elephant care, combined with losses in excess of $10 million per year, the City wanted out of the zoo business.  It invited offers to buy, lease, or manage the Zoo, but took it off the market when this appeared to jeopardize a deal to borrow giant pandas from China.

It’s been a while since the Zoo’s system worked, but memory of those periodic wins made the Zoo’s Board of Management throw down its last chips on a bet that return of the pandas would make its real problems go away, for a little while at least.  It was presented to the City that way in a 2012 governance proposal in which the pandas were expected to give the Zoo “time to position and implement its new vision as a regional cultural and recreational destination.”

In plainer language, the Zoo was proposing to buy time, which of course requires money.  For the Zoo , that meant sticking with the system and wagering on the irresistibility of pandas.  Only money could relieve the pressure of declining attendance and revenue, exacerbated by rising capital requirements, and only pandas could deliver the crowds.  It was a sure thing.

Although Councillor De Baeremaeker argued that conservation and education were the primary reasons for spending millions to borrow pandas, he expressed confidence that they would more than pay for themselves.  Councillor Augemari argued that the presence of the pandas would make philanthropists look more favourably on the Zoo, enabling it to raise charitable funds, which, when added to the growth in attendance, would reduce the amount of subsidy required from the City.  Councillor Cho guaranteed that the pandas would bring people and money, in addition to fostering better relationships with China and building tourism awareness for the region.  Make no mistake, the giant panda gamble was all about hitting the jackpot.

And Councillor Mammoliti, a great friend of elephants at the time, hastened the deal by threatening to visit China himself.  A man known for squeezing a dollar out of any situation, Giorgio had landed repeatedly on the wrong side of ethics rulings about campaign spending and contributions, and about sweetheart, midtown, apartment leases.  The threat of diplomatic mayhem was enough to draw senior levels of government into the bid to bring the cuddly Er Shun and Da Mao to Toronto.  An international incident was narrowly averted.

That’s how badly the Zoo wanted the pandas.  In fact it didn’t just want the pandas, it needed them.  Gambling is an addiction, after all.  In fact it needed them so badly, it was willing to ignore the odds against meeting their panda-elevated attendance and revenue targets.

It is ignoring them still.  Instead of making money with the pandas in 2014, it lost millions more.  Attendance increases fell well short of targets.  Yet the Zoo Board is predicting panda-driven attendance and revenue increases again next year, and is again promising the City a reduction in subsidy requirement.  The evidence weighs against this result, yet these expectations are built into the detail of Toronto’s 2015 budget.

Panda loans to other zoos, like Memphis and Atlanta, have resulted in the opposite effect.  Attendance tends to decline after the novelty wears off, it doesn’t typically increase as the Toronto Zoo expects. Given that the cost of keeping pandas remains constant, declining attendance can only mean greater losses.  This is born out by analysis of panda loans in general.  They lose money.

Panda maintenance costs are the ante in this game.  It takes a couple of million dollars per year to satisfy the need for special food, handlers, veterinary care, and facilities, in addition to fees for the Chinese governmen.  They are by far the most expensive animal of the thousands (including fish) housed at the Zoo.  In fact, one panda costs as much to keep as five elephants, which may be a moot point now that the Zoo has lost all its elephants.

Still, from any rational perspective, the Toronto Zoo can’t afford to be in this game.  It’s throwing bad money after good now.  That’s disastrous for the Zoo, its animals, the City, and the taxpayer.

Pandas aren’t as amazing as they used to be and the Toronto Zoo has deteriorated in the public’s perception beyond what the panda “brand” can restore.  The combined effect of these two factors is what we see on the Zoo’s 2014 P&L statement – a loss of nearly $12 million in 2014.

It’s wrong to kick a horse, or a panda, when it’s down, but let’s be honest about the panda brand.  When it was adopted in 1961 by the World Wildlife Fund, it had a fresh, innocent image.  It was the ingénue of the animal world, cute and unthreatening, unlike other endangered species.  An anatomically correct panda doll was welcome in any infant’s crib; a leathery rhino or fanged tiger, less so.  No one could resist the plea to save them from extinction, and WWF was first to make that plea.  The panda logo proved to be extremely powerful.

But in the half century since, the panda brand has been promiscuous.  Hundreds of corporations have used and abused it.  Disney has depicted a panda as an MMA fighter.  Despicably dull Chinese food can be delivered in minutes by Panda Express.  Look up panda logos in Google images.  They’re everywhere now.

Pandas are overexposed.  At present China has 61 pandas on loan to Zoos around the world, 25 in North America.  It’s a lucrative business for the lender.  As a regional tourism draw, the presence of pandas is far from unique.

Besides, we have endearing and troubled species of our own in North America.  Polar bears are running out of icecap.  In urban areas, coyotes are the new raccoons, putting cats and small dogs on the endangered list.  Black bears have acquired a taste for kitchen garbage and treat rural dumps like private pantries.  Moose are a hazard to cars on northern highways.  Cars are a hazard to moose.  In addition there are the perennially imperilled Vancouver Island marmots and black footed ferrets, the latter of which have been reproducing madly in carefully controlled conditions at the Toronto Zoo.

Maybe it’s time we all weaned ourselves off pandas and focused on the animal and habitat problems in our own backyards.  After all, who do these creatures need protection from?  Not each other.  The danger is us, and we are here, in Toronto, chewing up our own habitat and displacing our own species.  There’s not a lot we can do for China other than to send money, but in 2015 the Province of Ontario will be refereeing a tussle between developers and conservationists over the future of the Green Belt and the Oak Ridge Moraine.  Surely these deserve more of our attention than the pandas.

And as for the rest of the Zoo, all the non-pandas, condemned to life in their prison dioramas, their appeal is diminishing too.  The idea of a zoo is anachronistic to 21st century sensibilities.  They are in their twilight as an entertainment form, repellant to some, irrelevant to others, in desperate need of repurposing.

In the attractions business, attendance is expected to decline slowly over time unless the site and program are refreshed to provide a different visitor experience every five years or so.  Adding a ride or an exotic animal isn’t enough.  Zoos are immensely expensive, land-intensive, commitments of civic resources and reputation, they are not travelling carnivals or circuses.

The Toronto Zoo looks and feels very much the same as it always did.  Overall, it has changed by accretion, not by design.

It should also be said that the Zoo doesn’t provide the City of Toronto with full value for the hefty subsidy it requires.  The Zoo isn’t easily accessible for the average Torontonian because it takes too long for a family to get there.  Traffic is a nightmare and transit from the core is worse.  Unsurprisingly, the people who get the most benefit out of the Zoo live closest to it, many beyond City limits in small cities like Ajax, Pickering, and Whitby.  They see the value of subsidizing the Zoo because they can buy cheap family memberships and visit often.  Best of all, their taxes don’t pay the $12 million subsidy at year end.  For them it’s a great deal.

But for Torontonians and their City Council, the Zoo is a constant expense and a frequent embarrassment.  The City’s attempt to sell, lease, or contract out the Zoo operation served notice that it wanted a divorce back in 2011.  Now that the Zoo’s gambling problem and panda addiction is out in the open, how long will it be before the City tries again, seizing what’s left of its assets seeking a new partner?

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