A municipal zoo opened in Davenport in 1909, but by 2009, the city will no longer be in the business of owning animals.
After months of debate, extensive research by a council-appointed task force and much public input, aldermen voted 6-4 Wednesday night to ship off its zoo animals and instead turn Fejervary hill into an “eco park” with a contracted petting zoo.
The action was taken at a Committee-of-the-Whole meeting, meaning the council had to suspend its normal rules to hold a binding vote.
In addition, the council voted 9-1 in favor of adopting the Fejervary Zoo Task Force’s recommendations to make the park comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and focus on environmental education, ecology and other activities that would complement the Putnam Museum.
Passion about the past, present and future of the zoo was in large supply at Wednesday’s meeting, as comment from the public and debate among aldermen lasted more than an hour.
The majority of those in the audience spoke in favor of hiring a full-time curator to allow the zoo to remain as-is. However, a member of the city’s park advisory board, a volunteer from Fejervary who helped raise the zoo’s cougars and the heads of both DavenportOne and the Riverboat Development Authority urged acceptance of the task force recommendations.
Nearly everyone agreed that maintenance and animal care have slipped at the zoo ever since a major renovation was nixed in the 1980s. Whether to re-invest in a traditional zoo or try something new divided the council.
“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the past, and we have a zoo that’s been neglected,” said 5th Ward Alderman Bill Lynn. “Restoring it would take a huge commitment of resources. If we hire a curator now, we’ll just perpetuate a nursing home for old animals.”
But Alderman Ray Ambrose, 4th Ward, said the city should think long and hard before turning its back on the past. He also repeated the refrain from those in favor of keeping it open that it serves an economically challenged part of town.
“I’ve received many, many calls from people who want to keep the zoo open, including some from daycares that say it’s the only affordable alternative to them,” he said, adding that there are five elementary schools within two miles of Fejervary.
Mary Rourke, who lives near the zoo, said growing up without a lot of money, the zoo was one of her few escapes. It remains an inexpensive destination for many in West Davenport, she added.
“What poor or middle class people are going to go to Niabi?” she said, referring to the larger zoo in Coal Valley, Ill. “Economically speaking, I think it’s wrong to discriminate against poor and middle class west end Davenporters.”
Third Ward Alderman Bill Boom, however, pointed out that having a petting zoo would allow the park to be open to everyone, free of charge.
Alderman Mike Matson, 8th Ward, who made the initial motion to hire a full-time curator and has been the zoo’s fiercest defender, questioned whether the economic arguments for getting out of the zoo business made sense. He noted the cost of ADA compliance, hiring an outside contractor to do a petting zoo and other improvements to turn the park into an eco center per the task force’s recommendation would cost as much or more than a curator.
“I actually think hiring a curator would enhance the task force’s recommendation,” he said.
It was 1st Ward Alderman Nathan Brown, a relative newcomer to Davenport, who summed up the feelings of the majority.
“My family and I moved here six years ago, so I’m looking at the zoo for what it is, not what it was,” he said. “And it needs work. I’m looking to the future. I’m not voting for the full-time curator because I don’t think it’s a valid solution right now.”