The Corner

If You Don’t Buy This Budget, We’ll Kill This Seal

Or so you might assume from the first page of the Washington Post’s Metro section yesterday, the main story of which covered what might happen to the National Zoo if a delay or replacement for sequestration isn’t passed:

It turns out, though, that there isn’t too much for the zookeepers and animal-lovers generally to worry about:

A lot of federal managers are fretting about the sequester, the deep budget cuts that could take effect next week. But very few of those managers manage man-eaters. Craig Saffoe does, and he knows that even if $85 billion in federal spending gets sliced this year, he has to keep his lions and tigers fed.

“We can’t just put these guys in a warehouse,” says Saffoe, standing on the safe side of a steel mesh wall at the National Zoo as Naba, a 300-pound lioness, rumbles like a restless volcano a few inches away. Two other massive females prowl and growl, muscles climbing over one another beneath their tawny coats. Naba and friends are not the kind of federal denizens you want suffering during major cutbacks. . . .

Be reassured, zoo lovers. The cats will get their beef, the pandas their bamboo and the seals their herring, and all from familiar fingers. Most of the zoo’s 110 keepers, biologists and curators are rated as essential personnel in the event of government shutdowns and furloughs.

“We will never compromise on human safety, and we’ll never compromise animal welfare,” promises Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo, which has a $50 million budget and employs 450 people. “These people are incredibly devoted to these animals.”

Officials are scrambling to make sure the care keeps flowing, even as the sequester threatens to put the squeeze on other functions, including education, research and administration.

The Smithsonian is bracing for at least a 5 percent budget cut, which would amount to $40 million if the cuts weren’t restored before September, according to Linda St. Thomas, the institution’s chief spokeswoman. While the Pentagon has announced possible furloughs of up to 800,000 civilian defense workers, the Smithsonian plans to absorb the sequester mainly through freezing hiring, reducing training and delaying new equipment purchases and construction.

So sequester isn’t exactly going to leave any seals high and dry, but zoo officials warn that long-term budget constraints could, possibly, eventually, lead to closing some program at the zoo:

With five curator jobs and numerous keeper slots vacant because of three years of frozen budgets, the sequester could nudge the zoo closer to what Kelly calls the doomsday scenario: closing one of its expensive major exhibits. “We’re to the bone,” Kelly says. “I will never compromise on animal welfare or human safety, but we’re now at the point where we’d have to lop off a whole module.”

Which would go? . . . “Please don’t make me chose among my children!” pleads Kelly, declining to speculate on which exhibit would be most at risk. “Those collections are big and stable and took years to build. If, God forbid, we have to shut down lions and tigers, it would take more than a year to find homes for them. And then if the money was found, it would probably take three years to start it up again.”

The zoo knows what it will face if it moves to shutter an exhibit. Two years ago, Kelly announced the end of the Kids’ Farm, a barn full of domestic livestock that didn’t add much to the zoo’s research on endangered species. The outcry was instant, and the exhibit remains open, thanks to a five-year grant from State Farm insurance company.

That might be the zoo’s strategy going forward if they have to close something — let consumers and private interests support the popular exhibits while federal funding continues to go to the less-exciting scientific research the zoo does — but there are probably a couple other ways to decide what modules might be cut. For instance, if the federal government’s fiscal crisis continues, why not just sell off the zoo’s giant pandas and borrow some new ones from China?

Apparently of such national importance is the quality of the Smithsonian’s zoo (okay, it also makes good press) that WaPo also has a video production and a slideshow about the zoo and sequestration.

Patrick BrennanPatrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...


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