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Commissioners To Decide Fate Of Walk In The Wild If County Rejects Land Offer, Zoo Will Lose Home

(For the record, Friday, February 17, 1995): Spokane County commissioners are considering an offer of 81 acres, site of Walk in the Wild zoo, from Inland Empire Paper Co. The size of the parcel was wrong in recent stories about the offer.

The future of Walk in the Wild zoo and its animals rests with Spokane County commissioners.

Inland Empire Paper Co., which has provided the zoo with free rent since 1972, wants to give the 65-acre property to the county.

Unlike a similar offer last year, the county would not have to keep the zoo as a tenant. The paper company’s only stipulation is that the scenic land near the Spokane River and Centennial Trail be used for recreation.

If the county rejects the offer, the company will not renew the zoo’s contract as of June 30, said Wayne Andresen, general manager of the paper company.

“Twenty-three years has been a long time,” Andresen said. “We’re committed to getting out of the zoo business.”

Commissioner Steve Hasson said commissioners have not yet seen a letter Andresen sent Monday.

An outspoken critic of the zoo, Hasson opposed last year’s offer from the paper company because he didn’t want the county to become the zoo’s landlord.

Hasson said he wouldn’t accept Monday’s offer without a thorough review of the land’s suitability as a park and the county’s liabilities should the zoo be closed.

“I’m going to have to think that one through,” he said.

Hasson called the prospect of taking the land and evicting the zoo “a disaster, PR-wise. … I would have some real trepidations about doing that.”

Zoo directors, who have been facing eviction since September, say they will have to euthanize many of the animals if the zoo is closed.

Under its original lease, Walk in the Wild could have become owner of the 65 acres and an adjacent 179 acres by making $1.15 million in improvements within 10 years. The zoo fell far short of that goal, and Inland Empire Paper since has sold most of the adjacent land to the Nature Conservancy.

In 1990, the paper company offered to sell the property to the Inland Northwest Zoological Society, but zoo officials could not find the money or land for a trade.

In 1992, the zoological society, the county and the paper company began work on an agreement giving the land to the county and allowing the society to continue running the private zoo.

After two years of negotiations, Commissioner Skip Chilberg and former Commissioner Pat Mummey were ready to sign that agreement last year despite Hasson’s objections. But the zoological society, which had initiated the negotiations, backed out at the last moment.

Zoo directors said they didn’t want county ownership to interfere with a new fund-raising campaign.

That move left commissioners angry and puzzled.

As part of the fund-raiser, zoo directors said they would shut down the zoo if supporters didn’t provide $1.39 million. They backed down from that ultimatum during a meeting in September, when only $250,000 had been pledged.

Andresen announced at the same meeting that the zoo’s contract would not be renewed when it expires in June.

ILLUSTRATION: Map: Walk In the Wild