Altus Public Works Director Robert Stephenson said the zoo west of the Altus Reservoir has become problematic due to an insufficient number of trained volunteers, the lack of donations to support professional care and feeding of the animals and the inordinate amount of labor needed to keep it clean.
"We're at a crossroads; the only way we can keep it open is to have a dedicated cadre of volunteers that knows what they're doing to help feed off-hours, weekends and holidays," Stephenson said.
The popular site for children and stopoff point for walkers features chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits and goats. Department of Corrections inmates operate the zoo weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., but animals also need food on weekends and holidays. Funding for feed and pens comes primarily from donations. Citizens willing to volunteer time or donate funds for the zoo's upkeep may call 481-2252 or 481-2250.
"In a perfect world, I wouldn't want to close it, because we have so many little kids and people that come and the little animals are cute," Stephenson said. "But functionally, we just don't have the people, the time and the money to sustain the zoo as it should be."
Mayor T.L. Gramling said city officials would weigh the public's response before making the decision whether to close the zoo. "Maybe we didn't have the professional care and maybe the aesthetics of the pen became unsightly, but we will make changes if the public response is favorable to keep it open," Gramling said.
Bobbie Hubert, former Water and Sewer Department superintendent, and his employees started the petting zoo as a hobby in the mid-1980s. Assisted by inmate labor, the employees fenced an area east of the city's water warehouse. Inmates built an attractive native-stone waterfall, a bridge over a small duck pond, corrals for the goats and hutches for the rabbits.
Through the years, the large number of visitors and animals in such a small area exacted a severe toll on the esthetics and health of the zoo. The fowl ate all the grass, even after repeated sodding; and the goats killed several trees by eating the bark.
"We could no longer maintain grass, landscaping or the cleanliness required to assure the health of the animals and provide an enjoyable experience for visitors," Stephenson said.
A city employee volunteers to supervise the inmate workers and daily picks up leftover produce at local food markets. Without the markets' generosity, zoo operations could not have continued until now. Stephenson said he could not overstate the importance of the commercial patrons. However, during hot summer months, vegetables turn rancid, attract flies, create odors and potentially could affect the surface runoff near the reservoir. In addition to using the employees' time, grocery stores now charge for the food.
"If we're going to keep the petting zoo open, we will require sufficient funding to purchase processed feed. I want a nutritional feed source to assure the animals have a balanced diet," Stephenson said. "I know those little animals can't live on iceberg lettuce."
Most of the zoo's animals were previously local pets, no longer wanted by the owners. A couple of geese were removed because they bit people, the turkeys because they pecked the children and some larger goats so they would not hurt the kids.
Alice Dantzler, a six-year zoo volunteer, feeds and cares for the animals on Saturdays and many holidays; she also visits during the week. Schools bring classes to pet the animals and many out-of-town people bring grandchildren.
"What we really need is community interest. I know that it's out there, because I know how many people I see, even just an hour on Saturdays. There were so many people when we were having the baby goats," Dantzler said.
In her pleas for community involvement, Dantzler said the zoo does not need a lot from each person..
"We have so many beautiful animals, and people love them. I just know that if the community knew that we were not going to have it any longer, they'd get involved and volunteer to help," Dantzler said. "I want the people of Altus to have a chance to save the petting zoo."