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    Posted July 21, 2008 by
    Pensacola, Florida
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Rebuilding the Gulf Coast

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    Rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Zoo Northwest Florida. Part One

    iReport for CNN "Rebuilding the Gulf Coast" The struggles of The Zoo Northwest Florida You might call it the little zoo that could take the beating of three major hurricanes and still keep going. But the momentum that's kept The Zoo Northwest Florida afloat through some of the toughest times in recent history along the Gulf Coast, is quickly fading to economic hard times. Located about 150 miles east of Biloxi, Mississippi, you'll find the small zoo in Gulf Breeze, Florida. Biloxi is where the eye of Hurricane Katrina, a Cat 5 storm, plowed onto shore on Aug. 23, 2005. Even though this zoo was not in the direct path of this storm, the effects - wind, rain and loss of tourism dollars - were still felt. A few months before Katrina hit, the zoo, which is just a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, was dealt a mighty blow from the eye of Hurricane Denise, a Cat 3 storm that knocked down hundreds of trees, flooded coastal properties and derailed tourism. These two hurricanes could not have come at a worse time. The zoo was still trying to repair and financially recover from one of the worst hurricanes to hit this area in recent history -- Hurricane Ivan, a deadly Cat. 5 storm that brought the Pensacola and Gulf Breeze areas to its knees. The zoo was in the direct path of the northeast quadrant of the hurricane...the worse side of this massive storm. So I don't need to tell you that this Zoo has had its share of struggles. It seemed as though every time it was getting back on its feet, another storm would makes its presents known. And each time the struggles grew harder, to the point that today The Zoo Northwest Florida might have no other choice than to close its doors and start yet another struggle to find homes for more than a 1,300 animals. For a community that's still in the recovery stages from the one, two, three punches of the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, this would be a big blow. This beloved zoo has been a large part of this community for many years. A non-profit zoo that has made ends met with ticket sales, corporate and private supporters, fund raisers and donations, including penny drives from local school children. And many of these children are ones who lost everything during hurricanes Ivan and Dennis. Unlike many zoos that have the support of their local city, county and state governments, this zoo operates solely on its own. But its battle to keep the doors open and animals here is at the 11th hour. If the local city and or county government can't find room in their budgets, the zoo has no other choice but to put a lock on its doors and spend the next projected 12 to 16 months finding homes for all of the animals that range from large exotics, such as giraffes, lions, gorillas and a chimpanzee named Zackary, who waves and smiles at visitors, all the way down to the smallest of bats and snakes. I grew up in this area and like many people here, we feel a kinship with the zoo and its animals - some of which have been born at the zoo. I have attended events here, taken my nephews and niece here, and they offer many more things to do than just a day at the zoo, such as "Senior Keeper Programs", "Zoo Camp" and "School at the Zoo," all events directed to adults and children with the intent of educating them about exotic animals and wildlife. This zoo has over 30 acres for free-roaming animals that you can see up close via the Safari Line Train and stroll though the gardens, gift shop and children's petting zoo. A dear friend of mine and fellow animal lover, Betsy Bragg, came to me one day and asked if I could donate some artwork to the zoo to be a part of its fundraiser "Feast with the Beast". I felt that I could and should do more than just that. So that is why I'm doing this "iReport" for CNN. I hope that through my story and photos that it will bring attention where it is greatly needed. Betsy got me in touch with one of the board members of the zoo, Janie Switzer. And with my partner, Jeff Griffey, the four of us took off on a photo shoot, Safari style. I can't tell you how excited I was to see these wonderful creatures up close and personal. And to see how hard every one at this zoo has worked to recover from those storms. So many trees down, so many fences destroyed, damage to property, and loss of revenue and rising operational costs, with the change in the economy it's a lot to deal with when you are a non-profit zoo. Every day it's face with making sure that the animals are safe, getting them to shelter, keeping them calm, keeping them fed, keeping them healthy, paying the employees, maintaining and rebuilding the property, paying the utilities...the list goes on and on. As I was asked before, to donate artwork to the zoo for "Feast with the Beast" in September, chances are there won't be a fund raiser to donate to. So, with the help of Jeff, Betsy, Danyelle, Janie and the Pensacola News Journal, we are putting together a fund raising auction on eBay next week. With the photos that I have taken and the help of Akiens Framery, we are putting together a dozen 11x17 signed, matted, and framed photo prints of the animals that live at this zoo. One hundred percent of the net profits will go directly to the The Zoo Northwest Florida to help feed and maintain the animals, no matter what path this zoo takes. After having this chance to see the zoo from a different angle and to learn more clearly about the challenges they are faced with, I hope this story inspires more people to help. If you would like to bid on one of our prints, you can go to eBay. Link below..... http://shop.ebay.com/items/_W0QQ_dmptZArtQ5fPhotoQ5fImages?_nkw=zoonorthwestflorida&_fromfsb=&_trksid=m270 If you would like to learn more about the zoo and make a donation, you can do to the zoo's web page. Link below..... www.thezoonorthwestflorida.org I want to thank CNN for giving me the chance to get this story about The Zoo Northwest Florida out there and thank the viewers for taking the time to watch. James Amerson Animal Lover
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