A private foundation is working to bring a pair of giant pandas to Washington state, but officials at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium aren’t sure they want any part of it.
Emails between zoo leaders, obtained through a public records request, reveal the extent of their concerns about potentially hosting pandas in Tacoma. They worry whether the 27-acre facility at Point Defiance would be big enough, how much the arrangement would cost, and whether the animals’ popularity would cause traffic and parking problems.
Zoo officials also were annoyed that Lakewood businessman Ron Chow didn’t consult them before involving state lawmakers in a campaign to acquire pandas from China, or before holding press conferences announcing those efforts.
This is one of those issues where it sounds like an amazing economic-development slam dunk ... until you read the fine print.
Hunter George, chief communications officer for Metro Parks Tacoma, on the economics of pandas
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“They do not want to allow the facts to dilute this dream, and we represent the voice of reality,” wrote Gary Geddes, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium’s director of zoological and environmental education, in a December email.
Geddes wrote that the panda plan was “very absurd” and “makes no sense” — partly due to how he said pandas can hurt zoos financially.
A report from the nonprofit Giant Panda Conservation Foundation found that three of the four U.S. zoos that have pandas — in Memphis, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta — lost between $1 million and $4 million annually on the animals from 2004 to 2013.
Even the U.S. zoo with perhaps the most popular panda exhibit — the San Diego Zoo — lost money housing the animals between 1996 and 2010, and only more recently began to turn a profit, according to the fiscal impact report, which the panda foundation shared with officials at Point Defiance.
Those numbers run counter to suggestions by Chow and his group, the Washington Panda Foundation, that the animals would be a revenue generator or an economic benefit.
“This is one of those issues where it sounds like an amazing economic-development slam dunk ... until you read the fine print about all the conditions,” emailed Hunter George, the chief communications officer for Metro Parks Tacoma, which manages the zoo.
To host pandas, U.S. zoos must pay the Chinese government $1 million a year, and must commit to housing the animals for a minimum of 10 years. Additional costs include the extra zookeeping staff needed to tend to the pandas and the difficulty of maintaining their diet of bamboo, which Geddes called “a very labor intensive thing.”
Three of the four U.S. zoos that house pandas lost between $1 million and $4 million on the animals annually from 2004 to 2013, according to a recent report.
“They have a high quotient of cute, and we get that, but it’s a real significant cost to any exhibit,” Geddes said in a phone interview Friday.
Geddes said the Point Defiance zoo doesn’t have a space that is suitable for pandas. For the time being, Metro Parks is focused on completing other projects — such as a $50 million aquarium replacement — that voters approved through a 2014 bond measure, he said.
“We’re not saying no,” Geddes said. But, he added: “Just looking at it from the business side of it, it’s an uphill battle.”
Talks to bring pandas to Washington are moving forward, said Chow, who co-chairs the Washington Panda Foundation. Foundation members recently met with Chinese forestry officials, and they will be attending an international panda conference in China this month, Chow said at a press conference Monday.
Chow said he is hopeful that officials with the China Giant Panda Conservation Office will visit Washington in March or April of next year.
The panda foundation is working to identify private donors who could help fund any necessary facility improvements at local zoos, as well as the costs of caring for the pandas, Chow said.
“We’re on the optimistic side of this,” said Ron Lucas, the mayor of Steilacoom who has been a major supporter of the panda effort. “We know there’s issues — we do believe they can be solved successfully.”
They have a high quotient of cute, and we get that, but it’s a real significant cost to any exhibit.
Gary Geddes, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium’s director of zoological and environmental education, about pandas
Other public officials have embraced the idea. Last year, a group of lawmakers signed a letter asking the Chinese government to consider loaning Washington two pandas, after a visit to Washington by Chinese President Xi Jinping. A few months later, Xi responded with a letter saying he would have Chinese forestry officials look into the possibility.
State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican who signed last year’s letter seeking pandas from China, said it’s disappointing to hear the Point Defiance zoo is reluctant to host pandas, but he still thinks the idea is worth pursuing.
Dammeier, a candidate for Pierce County executive, said a loan of pandas from China could help “promote better relations and promote cross cultural understanding” between Washington state and its trade partners across the Pacific.
Plus, Dammeier said, “Pandas are awesome.”
“It just seems to me when there’s pandas in other parts of the country, it seems kind of silly to think that we couldn’t get them here,” he said.
Students from Tacoma’s Lincoln High School are also making a plea for the animals as they prepare to travel to China as guests of the Chinese government.
In a letter to Xi last week, Lincoln’s student body president, Abranna Romero-Rocha, called China’s giant pandas “a national treasure... which we hope to bring to our state.” During their trip, the students will be visiting Beijing as well as a well-known panda breeding center in Chengdu.
Besides the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, a pair of pandas theoretically could be housed at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, but officials there have expressed similar concerns about how much the animals would cost.
A spokeswoman for the Woodland Park Zoo, Gigi Allianic, wrote in an email Friday that “there have not been any developments” between the Seattle zoo and the Washington Panda Foundation in recent months.
Chow said even under the best of circumstances, it would probably be two years before the panda foundation can arrange for a pair of pandas to come to Washington state.