New zoo chair wants panda exhibit despite defeated rival’s opposition

Completing the panda exhibit and Dr. Schofield Memorial Garden projects are his first priorities, says the newly elected Toronto Zoo chair.

The proposed panda exhibit will not only bring in revenue but also serve as a pleasant gesture to the city’s growing Chinese community, which sees pandas as “a national treasure,” Joe Torzsok said.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time ever where the Chinese government has said, ‘We’re not just lending pandas to a city, we’re lending pandas to a country as a cultural gift’,” said Torzsok who beat former chair and Ward 44 councillor Raymond Cho and Etobicoke councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby for the job on Feb. 14.

Torzsok had been the vice-chair and one of the two citizen members of the board.

“Under the previous chair and previous boards, we’ve really started down a good path on a number of areas,” Torzsok said. “We recognize the cultural diversity of the city.

“In the past, you’d go to the zoo and see an animal. Now you’d see the animal and see how it fits the cultural context.”

But providing a home for the pandas will be very expensive, Lindsay Luby said.

“They have … dreams of this panda exhibit and that’s going to cost millions and millions of dollars,” she said. “I don’t know where they’re going to get it from.

“It’s one thing to dream, it’s another thing to deliver,” she said, adding she doesn’t think the board has been active enough in raising funds.

However, Torzsok said he’s confident the zoo can find the money for the panda exhibit and that the cost will be worth it.

Newly elected Toronto Zoo chair Joe Torzsok says it makes business sense to bring Chinese pandas to the zoo. A significantly greater number of people will visit the zoo, he says.

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“We’ve had interest from corporate donors in terms of sponsoring it,” he said. “But I think what people forget about is there is millions of dollars of cost to build something, but it’s also going to bring millions of dollars of revenue that will make the thing pretty much revenue neutral.”

Lindsay Luby and Torzsok also disagreed on the Schofield Garden. Cho proposed to build it in honour of the late Dr. Francis Schofield, a missionary and veterinary medicine researcher known for supporting the Korean independence movement.

“I just don’t think it belongs in the zoo,” Lindsay Luby said. “We have a lot of parks, that’s where it should go.

“You shouldn’t be sidetracked by other things like opening an ethnic garden. The zoo is there for conservation, education and exhibition.”

But the new chair believes Cho “was really visionary when he started that project.” The garden project fits into the zoo’s mandate to educate and inspire visitors, Torzsok said.

The zoo received $400,000 from the provincial government to offset the cost of building the garden.

Cho could not be reached for comment.

In voting for the chair’s job, Torzsok received four votes on the first ballot. On the second ballot, he received seven.

Councillors Norm Kelly, Glenn De Baeremaeker and Giorgio Mammoliti all stepped down from the zoo’s board, and Coun. Paul Ainslie was elected vice-chair.