Mill Mountain ZooFrom Mill Mountain Zoo: Friday, September 23, 2017 Since January of 2016, staff and board members at Mill Mountain Zoo have been busy completing their application for accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums(AZA). An exhaustive process, the application includes written documentation about the Zoo’s animal welfare and care practices, organizational issues, facilities, education outreach and fiscal stability as well as an on-site visit by a licensed veterinarian and a Zoo professional from another AZA facility. The application and inspection were completed in July and the Zoo was informed of the outcome at AZA’s national conference in San Diego two weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the AZA’s increasingly stringent standards for financial stability and sustainability have been steadily rising and the Zoo’s transformational change work which is supported by Roanoke City, Roanoke County, Virginia Tech and Virginia’s Blue Ridge Convention & Visitors Bureau, couldn’t overcome a 10-20 year history of tentative finances and the Zoo was informed that it would not receive accreditation. The Commission acknowledged the positive impact of the organizational and planning work done by Zoo staff and board over the last 18 months and also found no issues with the care and ongoing welfare of the Zoo’s animal collection and were complimentary of the Zoo’s staff in that regard.

The Zoo will continue to operate in a fiscally responsible manner with its USDA license intact. The mission of Mill Mountain Zoo as a wildlife conservation and education focused organization does not change. No major change in the Zoo’s animal collection is anticipated at this time and most changes that the public may notice are a result of moving our collection towards a more Virginia/Appalachian focus already being planned. “Make no mistake, it will be a challenging time for the Zoo financially as we work to put the pieces in place for change with the help of our supporters. Without the financial support of local governments and our community, the Zoo could be looking at severely reduced hours or even closure. We need the Blue Ridge region to let our local leaders know that this place matters to them!” said Zoo Executive Director Lucy Cook.

The AZA’s primary concern was the history of fiscal instability at the Zoo and echoed what current Zoo leadership had already acknowledged in their work towards transformational change at the Zoo. Those concerns are:

* The current infrastructure of the zoo is aged and in need of significant updating to reflect more modern animal enclosures and facility amenities. The improvements needed will require a substantial public-private investment.

* The lack of regional state and local government support for Mill Mountain Zoo over the last 10-20 years has placed disproportionate and unrealistic demands on the community’s philanthropic base when considered with the overall demands of the region’s arts and cultural community leaving the Zoo with constantly having to operate at a deficit.

* The Zoo is not currently able to take full advantage of its location adjacent to the Roanoke Star, the City’s Discovery Center, the Mill Mountain Wildflower Garden and the Blue Ridge Parkway due to a lack of a cohesive management model that utilizes all the attributes of this unique park location.

Despite the disappointing news, Zoo leadership is committed to working with their partners to guarantee the future of wildlife experiences and education in Mill Mountain Park and will be taking the following actions.

1. To work with key stakeholders of this region to engage in a visioning process that defines and builds community support for a shift in the Zoo’s collection and the creating and funding of a Blue Ridge Wildlife and Culture Center in Mill Mountain Park — a regional attraction focusing on children and families that will engage visitors with exhibits and experiences focused on animal habitat conservation and wildlife education knitted together with experiences related to the Appalachian region’s unique culture.

2. To identify and implement a new strategic, regional public-private governance model for the funding and operation of Mill Mountain Park that honors and protects Mill Mountain Park and its environment while building the sustainable and economic viability of the attraction which under a new collaborative management model will contribute to enhanced financial stability.

Plans for the immediate future are a community wide education and fundraising campaign as well as some new off-site programming and a few new surprises in our animal collection. “Stay tuned! As our work on a strategic business plan and public-private partnership model unfolds, Zoo Board Chair David Robertson stated, “it is our goal to secure the support necessary for a new and vibrant Mill Mountain Park and Wildlife Center that contributes in a positive way to the community and helps promote tourism.” The Zoo is open seven days a week, 10am – 4pm until November when it goes to winter hours. Check out our website for more information