Keep Your Friends Close


The Association of Zoo Friends, the members’ organisation which has supported the iconic Taronga Park Zoo and its sister Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo for the past 26 years, no longer exists.

The decision to close down the Zoo Friends appears part of a creeping agenda felt by arts and cultural organisations across the country: centralised Treasury control of their budgets plus a reduction in state funding accompanied by a greater reliance on community and corporate financial support. The squeeze is on and everyone is feeling it.

At a special general meeting on 5 April at Taronga’s Bradley’s Head site, members voted to disband their organisation. The two-part motion, which was passed with minimal objection, read:

"That the Association of Zoo Friends (NSW) Inc applies to the Office of Fair Trading for cancellation of incorporation;" and "That the Association of Zoo Friends (NSW) Inc distributes its surplus property to the Taronga Conservation Society Australia."

Having dissolved itself, the AZF has amalgamated its activities with the Taronga Conservation Society which operates both Taronga and the Western Plains zoos. Under the new arrangement, the administration of the Zoo Friends membership and the volunteer program has been transferred to TCSA.

Taronga’s CEO Guy Cooper has welcomed the dissolution of the friends’ organisation, saying:

"The amalgamation enables us to streamline our organisation and activities, meet the requirements of changing communication technology and avoid duplication of effort. The move, which is also aimed at substantially growing Friends and Volunteer numbers, will also lead to closer cooperation and synchronisation of activities and operations. Not only will our more than 55,000 members retain existing favourable multiple entry benefits, we are working to expand membership programs and introduce a wider range of volunteer activities."

However, there is disquiet among zoo supporters about the decision of the parent organisation to swallow the friends organisation with its long history of noble and committed service to the Sydney Harbour and Dubbo zoos.

Will the friends continue to deliver the same high level of commitment, hours and cash to the organisation now that they have lost their stand-alone identity? Only time will tell.

It’s worth taking a look at the contribution the friends organisation made to the zoos before it wound up. It has a membership of about 60,000 of whom 470 are volunteers who work regularly at the two zoos. Volunteers gave 66,987 hours of dedicated service in the last year, equivalent to $1.98 million based on average employment costs.

Also, during 2008 AZF provided $1.3 million to TCSA, the parent management body, and more than $375,000 to the Taronga Foundation. It provided a further $150,000 towards the Silvery Gibbons enclosure and conservation program and $40,000 towards Friends Fellowships for staff members to further their study, travel and training.

The total raised by the not-for-profit organisation last year was more than $2 million, all dedicated to support the two zoos and their conservation strategies.

In his 2005 annual report, CEO Guy Cooper was so impressed by the work of AZF, which was formed in 1983, that he wrote the following:

"Thanks to a generous donation of $400,000 from Zoo Friends, Taronga’s rain forest aviary received a major refurbishment this year. Twelve staff members received Zoo Friends’ Fellowships for various conservation projects. One enabled zoo staff to assist with research and tracking of the critically endangered Northern Territory Hairy-nosed Wombat in Queensland. "Finally, and as always, my thanks and congrulations to all staff and volunteers at both zoos for your commitment and enthusiasm throughout this extremely busy year."

Given that the friends appear to play such a vital role in the life of the two zoos, what is the rationale behind ending its independent and separate role?

Cooper and AZF president Leonie Saville signed a joint letter to Zoo Friends’ members in February this year explaining that a six-month review of the TCSA and AZF had been conducted last year by the leading accountancy firm, Ernst & Young.

Acting on the firm’s recommendations, the zoo proposed an amalgamation with AZF "in order to achieve greater operational efficiencies and to provide better services and benefits to members and volunteers", Cooper and Saville wrote.

Encouraging members to vote in support of the amalgamation, they said, in somewhat menacing terms: "A vote against the motion (to amalgamate) will leave the organisation with no means of income, no staff and no premises with little or nothing to offer members."

With this gun to their heads, the members acquiesced.

Although there have been assurances that the activities of the friends will continue as before, can it really operate in the same way now that it has been swallowed by the parent body? Most national, not-for-profit organisations representing museums, art galleries, botanic gardens, libraries, archives, zoos and historical sites in Australia have friends organisations.

They are represented nationally by an umbrella group called the Australian Federation of Friends of Museums (AFFM), which has 100 member groups representing almost 200,000 individuals who support cultural, historic, heritage and conservation bodies across the nation. The AFFM itself is affiliated to the World Federation of Friends of Museums which has branches in 34 countries.

The acute importance of friends’ organisations has long been recognised. In recent years, China has sent cultural and conservation representatives to Australia to learn how to establish friends groups so that the community itself becomes actively involved in artistic, cultural and historic projects. They have paid particular attention to the management of Australian zoos and the role of "friends".

By absorbing AZF into the management body, the Taronga powerbrokers may have inadvertently cut themselves off from this most dynamic section of their community support. No matter what the managers say, having lost their independence, the friends’ voices have been muffled.

This will suit those professional zookeepers, accountants and managers who resent the "interference" by over-enthusiastic friends. There is no doubt that friends can seem a pain at times but good management knows how to direct their zealotry and turn it into a positive contribution.

The State Government, the NSW Treasury and the Zoological Parks Board of NSW, which is the statutory authority in charge of the zoos, will be delighted that AZF has vanished and that the money raised in future years will go straight into the coffers of the two zoos.

It will strengthen the corporatisation of Taronga and Western Plains Zoos and turn them away from voluntarism and into self-funding and even profit-making economic entities.

Who knows what the next step might be — privatisation?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.