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Mayor Won't Stick to Making Panda Deal for Much Longer

By Jim Ludwick
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    The Albuquerque zoo's grand plans might soon go from cuddly to ferocious. Think grizzly instead of panda. Chinese golden monkeys are a possibility, too.
    Albuquerque officials plan to give up on longstanding panda efforts if progress isn't made soon.
    The next six months could tell the story, as panda discussions continue with the Chinese government, BioPark director Ray Darnell said Monday.
    Darnell, Mayor Martin Chávez and others will meet with the Chinese ambassador next month in Washington, D.C. If things go well, Chávez might attend further meetings in China during May or June while he's in that country as part of a trade delegation.
    Darnell said the city won't keep trying indefinitely.
    "The mayor is realistic. He doesn't want to pursue this forever, and he doesn't want to disappoint the public," he said.
    By summer, "we'll have an idea of whether this thing is worth pursuing or not," Darnell said.
    Chávez has been pushing for several years to get a panda from the San Diego Zoo. It would require approval of the Chinese government, which supplied giant pandas to San Diego under a loan agreement.
    The mayor said Monday that the quest "has always been an uphill project."
    "You always have to be willing to re-evaluate," Chávez said.
    Darnell said the zoo might consider a grizzly bear exhibit if it can't get a panda.
    Chávez might lean toward a different animal. "I don't know. I kind of like golden monkeys," he said.
    Golden monkeys come from China, and, if the city wants one, it would have to deal with the same Chinese office that has been negotiating a panda deal.
    If the city goes with a grizzly instead, Darnell said the animal could be obtained from another zoo, but it's more likely it would come from a wildlife rehabilitation program. Those programs care for animals that can't be returned to the wild— because, for example, a bear's mother died while it was a cub and the bear has been fed by humans ever since.
    Capturing an animal simply to put it in a zoo is a thing of the past, Darnell said. "Very seldom are animals taken out of the wild," he said.
    It would cost about $1.6 million to create a panda exhibit, and it's not too late to back away from spending that money, Darnell said. "The exhibit has not been built. We have done some preliminary drawings and designs," he said.
    If the city gets a panda, it would almost certainly not happen before next year, because it takes about a year to get through the approvals and handle the paperwork after an informal deal is made, Darnell said.
    The idea of a grizzly is so new that the cost is unclear.
    This isn't the first time Albuquerque has tried to get a panda through the Chinese government.
    Fourteen years ago, then-Mayor Louis Saavedra led a delegation to China to negotiate a deal for pandas, golden monkeys or another rare creature. Darnell, who went on that trip, said the arrangements were ultimately unsuccessful because the Chinese demanded fees that were prohibitive.