Topeka's mayor has a vision of bears, elephants, giraffes and tigers roaming in wide-open spaces in Shawnee County. And he's looking to neighbors, including Douglas County, to help pay for a regional zoo.
"We have a zoo over here and we call it the 'World Famous Topeka Zoo,' but it isn't. I don't know that it's even area famous," Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten said of the Topeka Zoological Park. "It's a nice little zoo, but it could be a lot better."
He said he would like to see a regional zoo similar to the Rolling Hills Zoo, west of Salina. Rolling Hills, a privately owned zoo, is known for keeping animals in large, controlled natural environments.
Bunten said the size of the zoo and the costs associated haven't been determined. But zoos aren't cheap. Topeka budgets $1.5 million annually to run its zoo, Bunten said. As a result, he plans to meet with commissioners from Douglas, Jackson, Jefferson, Osage, Shawnee and Wabaunsee counties in November at a Kansas Association of Counties' conference in Topeka to see whether they have any interest in his vision.
"I don't know if people will want to do this," Bunten said. "But I think it's worth discussing."
Douglas County commissioners seemed skeptical when a letter about the idea from the Jackson County Commission was brought up at Monday's meeting. There are zoos already established in Topeka and Kansas City, they said.
Bunten said the Topeka Zoo would close and the 365 animals would be moved to the regional zoo.
But Douglas County Chairman Charles Jones said the idea would be a tough sale.
"No citizen has ever come up to me and said, 'We need a regional zoo,' so I just don't have a sense of there being a great public demand," he said. "We're willing to listen, but I think it's fair to say where we are on this, and I just don't see any enthusiasm for it."
Lawrence resident Ronda Eisenbarger said she enjoys taking her children to the zoo, but they usually go to the one in Omaha, Neb. It's nicer, she said.
"But if there was a regional zoo, I'd go to it," she said. "I don't think I would push for it though."
Other issues could affect Bunten's plan besides lack of enthusiasm. Efforts and discussions are under way to consolidate Topeka and Shawnee County's parks and recreation departments. The Topeka Zoo falls under the purview of the city's parks and recreation department. There's also the possibility of the city and county governments consolidating.
"It's quite possible that a little more than a year from now, the city may not be running the zoo," Shawnee County Commissioner Vic Miller said. "I think the citizens need to be asked what direction they want to take with the zoo."
Bunten said that a potential change in government doesn't mean city leaders should stop coming up with ideas.
"I'm just seeing if people are interested in it and getting some very preliminary figures for what things may cost for this larger, more expansive type of zoo," Bunten said. "Those are things that could be used by the new government if it happens. But right now, I'm just seeing if there is interest."
The Topeka Zoo had about 182,000 visitors in 2004. Forty-five percent to 50 percent of the zoo's guests are from surrounding counties, including Douglas.