“I heard that the Toronto zoo might be closed down. How can you do that? It’s Canada’s most important zoo. It’s known for its conservation activities itsand interactive education.”
I phoned him because I love zoos. I think they’re one of the few ways we have of teaching respect for other species. They’re a bit of hope in a world where the number of endangered species increases every day. He’d picked up the phone because we’d been friends when we were young. We saw each other maybe once a year or so. I’d heard he was politically connected. Now he was a big shot, living in a house in Forest Hill, driving a car that cost about the same as my mortgage.
“It’s sitting on prime land,” he said. “Seven hundred and ten acres. Do you know what that would be worth to a developer?“
“What about the animals?” I asked.
He hesitated, cleared his throat and said, “You never heard this from me. Okay? I’m just an advisor.”
`”Okay,” I said.
“They’ve got to cut the budget. Everything has to be on the table. They`ve got to able to discuss every possibility. Interest payments are killing them.”
`”Sure,” I said.
“The first thought was sell off the animals, shut down the zoo, put the land up for sale. Simple, clean. Easy to understand but then my grandkids heard the idea and their class had just gone to the zoo. My granddaughter loves the monkeys and my grandson loves the lions.” There was a long pause. I could hear him shifting in his chair. “It`s gotta be user pay. Not you and me pay. User pay. Toronto has changed. Another suggestion is to increase revenue. There are high class restaurants that like serving exotic food. There are a lot of people who`ll pay big dollars for a rhino steak or lion chops.`”
`”I`ve heard of them,” I said.
“It`s no different than breeding cows or pigs or chickens. There`s even a big demand for snake. I don`t get it but some people are into snake soup. We`ve got the facilities. We`ve got the vets. We can supply zebra or water buffalo anywhere in the world. Butcher it, chop it up, package it. Onto a plane. My wife buys lamb from New Zealand. What`s the difference?”
`”I don`t know,” I said. And I didn`t. What`s the difference? There was a package of ground buffalo in my fridge. How’s a buffalo any different from a giraffe? “It just doesn’t seem right.”
“There’s no money,” he said. He sounded exasperated. “Nobody wants anything cut. Nobody wants more taxes. Let somebody else pay. We want, we want, we want. Like a bunch of little kids. It’s like my granddaughter. She wanted a new bike. She just got a new bike a couple of months ago. Her dad said he couldn’t afford it right now. She said, ‘Put it on your credit card.’ Eight years old. Don’t save for it. Don’t work for it. Put it on your credit card. What are we teaching kids today?’”
“It’s the best zoo in Canada.”
“Maybe we can’t afford to be the best in everything anymore. You want a cancer operation or you want to see the chimps? You want bus service or you want to look at a wart hog? You still out there on that island?”
“Yeah,” I admitted.
“You should’ve come to Toronto, used your brains to do some business, you’d be driving a Mercedes. You’d have been a neighbour. You got a better plan?”
“No,” I admitted. “But I haven’t been trying to come up with one.”
“Call me in a week. Give me a better plan than sell the animals, subdivide the land, sell it to the developers. Or find a way to cut operating costs and bring in revenue. No more somebody else pay. It pays for itself or it goes.”
There was a long pause. I could hear him breathing. Short, sharp, exasperated breaths. He was a heavy smoker, always exasperated, in a hurry. He didn’t have time to be retired. He’d be fidgeting with some papers, deciding whether to invest in some start-up company. Time was money. Friendship was fine for old time’s sake but talking to me wasn’t helping the bottom line.
“Toronto has changed,” he said. “It can’t afford to be number one on somebody else’s money. Like the Greeks. Like everybody. Put it on your credit card. The world has changed. Do you read the news out there? No more Santa Clause. Let Vancouver be number one. ” He took a long, deep breath then let it out slowly. “You didn’t hear it from me,” he said, then he hung up.