I've been to the Zoo every year since my kids were born, so trekking out to the opening day of Niabi Zoo yesterday seemed like a natural thing to do.  We've been supporters, members and visitors for the better part of the last 20 years, and I can't remember a worse showing of that beautiful place.

The Zoo has had it's moments in those last 20 years.  Finding accreditation, expanding, getting new and different animal exhibits all seemed like part of the process of a Zoo on the rise, with a few valleys thrown in for character building.  Well, after my visit there yesterday, I'd say there's a valley coming.  The absence of elephants is obvious, a fact I'm sure not lost on the Zoo Director and staff.  But with nothing to replace them, the huge empty space, right at the front is devastating.

The entire flow of zoo patrons is thrown off, as they migrate from the train stop to the big empty sad space…then turn around and wonder how to make their visit worthwhile.  Even the fish were reluctant to feed at the pond gazebo.

And as for the "Opening day" aspect, it was as anemic as I've ever seen.  I can't think of anything that actually said, "Welcome to Niabi 2014" except the girl at the front gate.  No signage explaining where the elephants went, or why, leaving the majority of kids wondering.  Nobody working seemed excited that the new season had begun.  The wolf enclosure had a staff member walking around carrying a huge bag of garbage over his shoulder.  Wolf Scat Santa.  Even the flagpoles atop the ticket booths sat empty, nothing waving a welcoming, "Hello."  It was opening day.  A huge missed opportunity.

I am looking forward to the future new Big Cats exhibit, and the giraffes are mysterious, but  Niabi is a long way away from just a few years ago, when everything seemed to be looking up, not catching up.

Maybe more support is in order.  I know that there's a certain window of time where families use the zoo more often, as kids grow into the fascination stage.  Maybe those families should donate more to the operation of the zoo.  Maybe we all should. Creative fundraising has always been a challenge for the zoo, and what seems to be missing is a clear plan for the future of the place in the landscape of the Quad Cities.  Patrons like to see the results of their efforts and follow along.  There is a challenge ahead for Niabi, and the zoo seems to always rise to meet those challenges.

Dwyer/Townsquare