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Scaling Back

The Baltimore Zoo Closes the Reptile House and Hopes Less is More

Sam Holden
Mavis, the Blood Python
Sam Holden
Emerald Tree Boa
Sam Holden
Blue Poison Dart Frog
Sam Holden
Gila Monster
Sam Holden
Poison Dart Frog
Sam Holden
Egyptian Tortoise

By Eden Unger Bowditch | Posted 7/28/2004

The sight of a Raimondi’s Florist van pulling up to the Reptile House on the afternoon of July 9 was enough to tell fans of the Baltimore Zoo that something wasn’t right. There were no flowers, no assortment of white mice and crickets inside for the resident reptiles and amphibians. The van carried chocolates and sugar-coated almonds, condolence offerings for the seven staff members who were not only in peril of losing their jobs but also were about to lose some of their dearest friends. The deliveryman handed over his package with a heavy heart. “It’s a sad thing,” he said, shaking his head.

After more than half a century of operation, the zoo’s Reptile House is closing. There are no signs on the doors letting the public know the date, though a single black wreath adorns the staff entrance on the side of the building. Suspicious omens might have been apparent to regular visitors, however: severely cut back visiting hours, the requisite $1 nonmember entry fee suddenly waived. Plans may have been in place since mid-May, but were only announced earlier this month. (Zoo officials explain the late notification by saying they wanted time to be sure of the decisions and let all of the staff members know before telling the public.) Since cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians cannot be shipped safely in winter, most of the soon-to-be-former residents of the Reptile House will need to head to their new homes soon; the exhibit is slated for closure July 30.

Of course, many of you may be asking, “What Reptile House?”

And that is part of the problem. The tiny building, which houses most of the zoo’s reptile and amphibian collection, actually sits across the street, about 200 yards from the main zoo entrance. It is alone on a hill surrounded by nut trees. It has one main room with vaulted ceilings, tile floors, and glass-front enclosures that display petite but beautiful natural habitats. The single room makes it easy to maneuver with strollers, and kids love the condensed space—it’s just their size, and they can get up close and personal with their cold-blooded buddies. Even toddlers can run around on their own without getting lost. And while slithering snakes and warty toads may not capture everyone’s imagination, they have provided a strange fascination for generations of visitors over the past 56 years.

“The Reptile House is one of the creepiest, scariest, and, yes, erotic places in Baltimore,” says filmmaker John Waters, a fan. “Where else are weird, little children supposed to go to be inspired?”

Just as the decline of one species can be a sign of larger changes at work in an entire ecosystem, so the closing of the Reptile House signals other shifts in store at the Baltimore Zoo. While the Reptile House houses many of the zoo’s most uncuddly creatures, in a location far off the beaten paths of a zoo already spread over several small hills and valleys, many of the zoo’s more familiar animal collections and exhibits are endangered as well. The zoo plans to find new homes for its gibbons and the two rare snow leopards on display. Once the apes and big cats in question are gone, the zoo will empty the rest of the antiquated cages in the zoo’s Victorian-era gateway section—aka, the “Main Valley”—and consolidate around three main exhibits: the Arctic (to be based around the new polar bear habitat, which opened in 2003), Africa, and the Maryland Wilderness, which includes the Children’s Zoo.

The Baltimore Zoo is also getting a new name: Zoo officials have announced that it will now be known as the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Of the 450,000 to 500,000 visitors the zoo welcomes each year, “more than two-thirds of our guests come from out of the city,” notes Ben Gross, head of public relations for the zoo. The new name, he adds, “is more representative of who we are.” But what does it say about who we are, as city dwellers, when our zoo contracts while others expand, when our zoo forsakes the city’s name, and when instead of keeping and preserving animals, many of them rare and endangered, it finds itself giving them away?

 

The Baltimore Zoo is the third-oldest zoo in the country. In 1860, the Baltimore Park Commission purchased the Druid Hill estate, now Druid Hill Park in which the zoo is located, from its owner, Lloyd Rogers, for $500,000. Wealthy railroad designer Thomas Winans released 52 deer into the park in 1867. The deer were allowed to roam free until the proliferation of the automobile made the elegant fauna’s prancing a danger. On April 7, 1876, the Park Commission established the Zoological Garden. The “Round Cage” was built in the zoo’s main valley, which included a few enclosures protecting the animals and the visitors from each other. By 1890, there were additional structures and the nonhuman residents included camels, monkeys, birds, and one alligator. The zoo flourished through much of the late 1800s, but by the turn of the century it was struggling to compete with private displays of exotic animals kept by wealthy collectors.

By the 1920s, the zoo had a reputation as being a dreary collection of a handful of disappointing animals, until 1926, when the elephant house was built. The first elephant, named Mary Ann, helped breathe life back into the exhibits. Mary Ann was soon joined by some bears, a lion, and in 1942, the first polar bear exhibit.

In 1948, the zoo’s first director, Arthur Watson, was appointed. He held the job for several decades, and he’s credited for bringing the first “modern” visions to the attraction’s management. Watson utilized breeding programs and trade agreements with other zoos to increase the number of animals from a meager couple of hundred to more than 2,000. He brought exotics, like giraffes and hippos, to the public. He updated the enclosures and facilities and brought a good deal of publicity to the zoo, which thrived for years despite boasting free admission (the first admission fee of 50 cents was put in place in the 1970s; today, an adult admission to the zoo is $11).

Until the mid-1980s, the zoo was funded entirely by the city and state. And as the city struggled to keep afloat during urban decay and shrinking municipal funding, the zoo’s budget shrank, too. The job of running the zoo was shifted from the city’s Parks Department to the nonprofit Baltimore Zoological Society, which was once its fund-raising body.

The zoo’s financial troubles are not new—by the ’70s and ’80s, the urban decay of the neighborhoods surrounding Druid Hill Park kept visitors away, and the zoo’s infrastructure was reportedly on “the brink of collapse,” according to reports in The Sun.

In 1991, the zoo found itself in a financial crisis so serious that the Maryland Republican Party offered to “adopt” the zoo’s elephants. By 2001, then-zoo executive director Roger Birkel told The Sun that the zoo was dying “a slow death, in its early stages. . . . After 125 years, much of this campus is simply worn out.” He listed ancient sewer pipes, power lines, and guest-service facilities (including rest rooms) that desperately needed attention. During Birkel’s tenure, the zoo embarked on a massive fund-raising campaign to improve the zoo and make it more attractive to visitors. Birkel hoped to see zoo attendance grow from its 600,000 annual number to at least a million. Birkel resigned in February 2002.

Today, the zoo’s budget is about $12 million. One-third of that comes from public funding, zoo President Billie Grieb says. Another third comes from admission fees, and the last third is made up of private donations, including zoo memberships. In November 2003, just weeks after opening its $7 million Polar Bear Watch exhibit, the zoo announced once again that it was in serious trouble. Grieb says that tragic current events like Sept. 11, the Washington D.C.-area sniper attacks, and two years in a row of bad weather have taken a toll on attendance at the zoo.

Further, she says, a decline in public funding has put the zoo in a very precarious situation.

“The reason the zoo got into financial trouble is because in fiscal year 2003 and fiscal 2004 the state cut a total of $700,000 from our budget,” Grieb says. “In order to make it through that period, we used up our cash reserve, which was about $1.3 million.”

To cope with the financial crisis, the zoo announced in November 2003 that it would have to lay off 20 workers, cancel some of its programs, and reduce its animal collection. Earlier this month, even more changes were announced, including the elimination of the Reptile House and closure of the zoo’s grounds during its slowest months, January and February. The changes are expected to save the zoo $1.2 million per year.

According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s 2002 listings, the Baltimore Zoo has approximately 2,089 individual animals, including 577 amphibians, 450 reptiles, and 160 mammals. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to approximately 2,492 animals, including 221 amphibians, 255 reptiles, and 769 mammals. Clearly, mammals take up a lot more space than their cold-blooded fellows. And, clearly, the Baltimore Zoo boasts a substantial collection of amphibians and reptiles, in large part due to its conservation work. Regardless, reptiles have been a big part of the Baltimore Zoo.

The Reptile House building, built in 1914, was originally a pump house, controlling water flow from a reservoir in the north-western corner of Druid Hill Park that became obsolete in 1928 when Lake Ashburton was put into service in its stead. The pump house sat empty for several years until plans to build an aquarium on the site were proposed. With the Great Depression in full swing, however, plans for building a new aquarium on the site were scrapped in favor of renovating the pump house to create a smaller, less expensive aquarium building, which began displaying goldfish, crabs, and an electric eel, among other aquatic life forms, in 1938. But the upkeep was apparently too much of a burden, and in 1948 the aquarium became the Baltimore Zoo’s Reptile House.

Walking through the Reptile House on a recent visit, you look into big glass windows at the animals as they bask calmly in their painstaking faux habitats, whether dry desert or lush tropics, unaware that soon everything in their lives will change. Sunni, the Sonoran mud turtle, is the oldest animal living at the zoo (and, in fact, the oldest living specimen of her species in captivity). Not much larger than a softball, this gentle little creature has been a resident of the Reptile House since 1953 . Last year, after 50 years as a bachelorette, Sunni got her first boyfriend. Sunni and Sheridan (yes, it’s Sunni and Sher) will be looking for new homes at the end of July.

Across the floor sits the desert retreat of four Aruba Island rattlesnakes who all answer to “Elvis”—Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello, Elvis Grbach, and Elvis Stojko. Nearby, the pancake tortoises with their spongy shells squeeze into impossibly small rocky spaces and then relax so that their shells expand back into shape, making them nigh impossible to extricate. A few doors down sit the Madagascar tomato frogs, which look, well, like tomatoes. The bearded dragons, now famous to grade-schoolers everywhere from their role as “yellow spotted lizards” in the movie Holes, crawl along a branch in their habitat, while Maevis, the blood python, hangs coiled from her own. The monitor lizards take place of pride among the exhibits, despite having a reputation as some of the smelliest reptiles in captivity. Besides having breath that could stop a clock (their mouth is a haven for bacteria), they like to leave wickedly malodorous calling cards around their enclosures, just to let their keepers know who’s boss.

They don’t generate the kind of mammalian empathy that even the most listless chimp or elephant tends to draw out of zoo visitors, but they are amazing animals. And while many hail from natural habitats that are fast disappearing, their futures are now as uncertain as their counterparts in the wild. And you don’t have to be a reptile or a conservationist to see the shame in that. Without the Reptile House, how can anyone see them firsthand and learn to appreciate them? Or, as Jane Ballentine puts it, “It’s one of the few places at the zoo where you can get up close.”

 

The situation with Baltimore’s Reptile House is especially distressing to Ballentine. She grew up in Baltimore and worked in the public relations department at the Baltimore Zoo until 1993. “I’ve been going there my whole life,” she says of the zoo. “I remember when the Mansion House porch was the bird exhibit. It was wild, really.”

Now Ballentine is the director of public affairs for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, and she is concerned about the Baltimore Zoo’s plan to trim exhibits to help stay afloat. The move is in stark contrast with the decisions at others zoos faced with financial uncertainty.

“Generally, renovating and building new exhibits is the trend,” Ballentine says. “Figuring out ways to increase visitation” is what most zoos try to do, she continues. “The trend is certainly not to close down facilities like reptile houses.”

Ballentine points out that the zoo association exists in large part to help the institutions it serves in such crises. “We offered all kinds of guidance and assistance,” she says. The association even offered a “mentor,” a seasoned professional from another zoo, to consult with the Baltimore Zoo.

Baltimore Zoo President Grieb contends that the zoo did follow advice from the association. “They’ve been a terrific help,” she says. At the association’s suggestion, Baltimore officials have “been to Cleveland, Tampa, and the National Zoo. Our whole development staff has been to the Philadelphia Zoo. We’ve listened and we’ve acted on suggestions.”

Zoo management simply wants to offer the best experience to the public that it can afford. “Our goal,” Norman Frost, chairman of the zoo’s board of directors, says via e-mail, “is to provide our visitors with a high-quality zoo experience while respecting our responsibility to our animals, our employees, and our community.”

To reach that goal, zoo management must deal with an unwieldy site, the outmoded and decaying infrastructure, and limited resources to do anything about them.

Many of the complaints zoo officials have received revolve around the many problematic hills on site that visitors must climb and the long walk from the entrance to the bulk of the exhibits. By closing down the central promenade of the Main Valley and revving up an already-in-place tram service to take people from the entrance into the heart of the zoo, officials hope to cut down on the taxing stroll and cut to the proverbial chase.

According to Grieb, the zoo hopes to obtain three trollies to shuttle visitors around the zoo—two will be purchased by the state, and the zoo will purchase the third on its own. The total cost for all three will be about $650,000, she says.

Ballentine counters that there is no evidence that hilly terrain or long walks are deterrents for visitors, “as long as the zoo provides an alternative.” For those who enjoy a brisk walk, the scenic trip through Buffalo Yards Road, now used at the zoo’s school and group entrance to the north of the main entrance, will be made available, offering a scenic walk through the woods to the attractions.

But, zoo spokesman Ben Gross says, “it’s not only a matter of convenience to the visitor.” The Main Valley’s infrastructure, including sewers and drainage, is in such terrible shape that it would cost $6 million to repair it, money the zoo doesn’t have lying around. In fact, Grieb says, the zoo’s administration anticipated that it would run out of money in the first quarter of this year. Fortunately, the zoo is managing to just break even, Grieb says, and may end up with a modest surplus of $180,000—money that will be used to replenish the zoo’s depleted cash reserves.

“We would have to redo [the Main Valley],” Gross says. “Then we would not be able to create the new Polar Bear Watch or renovate the Africa exhibit or the Children’s Zoo. Closing the Main Valley allows us to refocus the money on areas that we want to improve, as well as have the money go back into the staff in the form of training and salary. This, too, will translate into a better guest experience.”

Many visitors turn to the Reptile House as something of an uncrowded oasis, a place where you can avoid the zoo’s main entrance and still get a creature fix without braving the mob scene during peak season or the walks between exhibits. But with funds desperately low, the cost of maintaining an exhibit that gets fewer than 10,000 visitors a year (that’s less than 28 people per day on average) has become an unacceptable burden. And with no public outcry and no grass-roots efforts in the works to start a “Save the Reptile House” campaign (à la the Save the Elephants campaign that raised $1 million to prevent the loss of the zoo’s elephants, Dolly and Anna, in 2003), the space will be lost as a home for the cold-blooded set forever. Of course, nobody is happy about losing it.

“My son, who is now 23, loved to watch the snakes,” Grieb says. “We’re all sad, but we don’t feel we really have any choice.”

Sad doesn’t quite do it for Vicky Poole, curator of the Reptile House. “It’s been like sitting shivah,” she says. “At least we aren’t sitting here waiting for a diagnosis anymore. We know how long we have, and it’s all over on July 30.”

Tears threaten to overflow Poole’s big blue eyes when she talks about the place: “I feel like I am somehow responsible—this happened on my watch.” In fact, Poole has been responsible for maintaining the facility and prolonging its life in the face of its terminal condition.

Like the rest of her staff, she is deeply connected to the animals. She explains that she has always been a lover of the unfurry set: “I have a picture of me at age 4 holding a box turtle.” She attended the University of Maryland intent on becoming a marine biologist, but found herself caught off guard on her first open-water scuba expedition: “We were in Hawaii, and on my first dive a sea turtle came right up to me.” After attending a seminar given by Devra Kleinman of the National Zoo, Poole realized that conservation was what she wanted to do, and zoo work was where she wanted to do it.

After graduating college in 1990 she interned at the National Aquarium; in 1992, she went to graduate school at Texas A&M to study turtles and joined the staff at the Baltimore Zoo Reptile House a year later. She started as a keeper, then in 1997 became assistant curator; she has held the position of curator since October 2003.

And now she is presiding over the zoo’s liquidation of much of its reptile and amphibian collection. The zoo doesn’t sell its creatures; it gives them or loans them (in hopes of perhaps retrieving them some day) to other zoos. (Don’t get any ideas about adopting, say, a pine cone skink for your very own. All of the Reptile House creatures have specialized needs and would not make good replacements for the family dog.) Some of the animals have destinations. The king cobra is headed for the National Zoo. Other animals that have been on loan here will be returned to their home collections, some will go to the zoo’s education collection, and others will join the ranks of the animal ambassadors going out with the Zoomobile and being part of demonstrations.

No matter who gets shipped out or given away, someone is going to be sad about it. Every animal has its fans. “This is so unfortunate,” Ballentine says. “When I worked at the zoo, I remember one family that came regularly. They told me that each week they would pick one animal and read about it. Then they would come to the zoo to see just that animal.”

The animals’ human fans will be sad to see them go, but their larger purpose at the zoo will be thwarted as well. The Baltimore Zoo has been a leader in conservation, protection, and rescue efforts for many amphibians and reptiles, including residents of the Reptile House who now will have been given their slithering papers. Locally, the zoo has been responsible for many rescues. In 1994, for example, zookeepers rescued three endangered Indian flapshell turtles from becoming dinner for sailors on a Chinese freighter docked at the Inner Harbor. Flappy, one of the rescued flapshells, will soon be looking for another new home where he can live without fear of being eaten.

Internationally, the Baltimore Zoo is a part of Project Golden Frog, which includes other U.S. zoos (the Detroit Zoo, for one) and Panamanian institutions. “This has been really important to us and the world at large,” explains Poole, who, in addition to her curator duties, is financial coordinator and director of the captive population of the frog project. The Panamanian golden frog, said to be as important of a symbol to Panama as the bald eagle is to the United States, has been in danger of extinction in the wild due to an incurable disease. The Baltimore Zoo and Project Golden Frog’s work consists of field studies, breeding, and education. And, of course, zoo fans have gotten to see these strange little yellow creatures firsthand. This will change with the closing of the reptile house. Although there are plans to keep the zoo’s Panamanian golden frogs, as well as some of the others in the collection, patrons will no longer have the pleasure of visiting them. The animals will be housed in the zoo’s hospital, which is not open to the public.

In addition to animal rescue, the Reptile House has served as a scientific link to the community. Members of the staff have been going to hospitals to conduct snakebite lectures for more than a decade. They also provide animal identification to anyone finding reptiles or amphibians; injured box turtles and other local reptilian roamers are often brought in where they are watched and monitored before being released. The Reptile House staff also provides envenomation, aka snakebite treatment. “We’ve had helicopters landing there to pick up anti-venom,” Poole says, pointing to the field behind the building.

Being a prominent member of a team of conservationists, Poole knows how important protecting and caring for these animals is. But, she duly notes, it isn’t just the staff who is touched by the loss of the Reptile House. “Everyone is affected,” Poole says as she OKs a dose of medicine for a tomato frog’s eyeball. “I can’t go around the zoo without getting hugged by someone who knows. If the zoo was in better financial shape, if attendance was up, none of this would be happening. I know this is not an easy decision.”

 

“It’s extremely difficult and extremely sad,” acknowledges Mike Cranfield, the zoo’s director of animal management, research, and conservation. “I know I will have to say goodbye to some very dear friends, both people and animals.” But, he says, the choices that zoo administrators made seem to be the best options under the circumstances. “We were headed for disaster,” he says. “If we didn’t have this executive committee, the zoo would have probably been lost and we would have had to close more than the Reptile House.”

The loss of the Reptile House is even tougher for zoo staffers and fans to swallow because up until recently plans had been in the works to create a new Reptile House in the old Hippo House, in the heart of the newer part of the zoo.

“Getting to create a new facility for your animals is the greatest thing you can do in your career,” Poole recalls. “We had been so excited.” The staff had even been in the process of building up the collection in preparation for the new facility. But in early 2004, it became clear that while the zoo could afford to build the new reptile and amphibian facility, it couldn’t afford to run one if it went ahead and built it.

Like so many other nonprofits in the post-tech boom, post-Sept. 11 world, the zoo is struggling to keep afloat. It presently costs the Baltimore Zoo approximately $335,000 per year to run the Reptile House, zoo sources say, a figure that encompasses staff and food for the animals. The zoo has between $7 million and $10 million earmarked to build a reptile house in its capital budget, but it does not have the funds necessary to house and care for the animals each year in its operating budget, much less the extra $100,000 per year it would cost to look after the frogs and snakes in their new home once it was complete.

“We are going to build something else [with it],” Grieb says of the money the zoo was going to use to build the new Reptile House. “We haven’t decided what yet. . . . We’re possibly looking at building a new Penguin Exhibit or the restaurant, or a warehouse, and these are things that we would operate within our existing operating budget. Or else, in the case of the restaurant, we might outsource it.”

If the zoo did not make the cutbacks it has announced, including the closure of the Reptile House, Grieb says, it would not have enough money in its operating budget—the budget that covers everyday expenses like salaries, insurance, and maintenance—to remain open.

“I was afraid this would happen,” Poole says. “I’ve been trying to save money whenever possible.”

The irony is that while animal collections are not revenue-producing departments, like concessions and retail shops are, animals are why people come to the zoo. And reptile houses are usually among the most popular attractions at zoos. “They have done surveys,” Poole contends, adding that when visitors do come to the gift shop, “What do kids buy? Rubber snakes.”

Hopefully, this tightening of the belt is not forever. “If I win the lottery . . . ,” Grieb vows. But it will take more than luck for the zoo to survive its current predicament. Some observers familiar with the zoo’s finances estimate that the institution would need to double the number of bodies through the gate each year to nearly a million visitors to reopen key exhibits like the Reptile House and fully renovate the existing exhibits. For now, administrators are focused on simply keeping its attendance figures stable—with fewer exhibits and two fewer months in which to bring in visitors. As part of the new austerity measures, this winter the zoo will be closing in January and February. Closing the zoo during the coldest months and shutting down parts of the zoo will allow workers to be more efficient than having to work around visitors, administrators hope.

By focusing on three main (and very popular) exhibits, the zoo plans to give visitors more for their money in more concentrated doses.

“Word of mouth will carry,” zoo spokesman Ben Gross enthuses. “When we reopen in March, people will come and see how great the changes really are.”

In addition to planned renovations for the zoo’s Maryland Wilderness (which includes the award-winning Children’s Zoo) and Africa exhibit areas, the Arctic exhibit will be expanded to include not only the zoo’s two polar bears but also its snowy owls, ravens (apparently the Arctic is on their migratory path), and Arctic foxes. Gross also makes mention of yet-to-be-confirmed visiting exhibits and member-only events. While Grieb acknowledges that half of the gibbons on display and the one of two snow leopards the zoo owns will be loaned out long-term to other zoos as part of the current round of closures and cost-cutting, she mentions long-term plans for a new Asian exhibit. “I hear those gibbons every day when I arrive,” Grieb says. “When we have a place for them, we will get [them] back.”

Meanwhile, Grieb says, the zoo intends to preserve as many of the historic structures in the closed Main Valley section as possible; though empty, the Victorian-era cages will not be torn down.

As for the Reptile House itself, the city of Baltimore owns the property on which the Baltimore Zoo and the Reptile House stand. The city leases it for free to the state of Maryland, which, in turn, leases it to the Maryland Zoological Society, which manages the zoo and its facilities. The Reptile House will be returned to the city when it is vacated at the end of the month. What plans are there for the building? Will it be doomed to become another derelict historic treasure in Druid Hill Park?

“It is such a great building,” says Kimberley Flowers, director of the city Department of Recreation and Parks. “We will try to do something that would maintain the theme of the zoo, or somehow honor the significance of the zoo to the park.” She adds, “The Reptile House was always something I couldn’t wait to see. When I was a kid it was the highlight of my zoo experience.”

As the building returns to its owner and the animals move to other exhibits or other zoos, the Reptile House staff disperses as well. The zoo plans to offer generous severance packages to those who leave, zoo officials promise, but leaving is not easy for many of the staffers. After all, working at the zoo is more than a job—it really is an adventure. People don’t work there to get rich, they come because of their devotion to the animals. “Baltimore has a wonderful animal staff,” Ballentine says. “They are so good, so professional. I’m always impressed. It’s gotta be tough losing them.” And nobody wants to feel that he or she is abandoning the animals he or she has come to know and love.

In truth, nobody wants to see the reptiles and amphibians go. When asked about Sunni, the mud turtle who has called the Reptile House home for the past half-century, Grieb responds with excitement: “We’ve got to hold on to her. We’ve got to find a place for that turtle.”

Along with the sorrow there is hope for a brighter future. Grieb contends that though the zoo is going through a tough time, it will emerge more efficient, more organized. “We are not going down with the ship,” chief veterinarian Mike Cranfield says emphatically. “The ship has just been dry-docked and is being repaired. It will shine again.”

But it will shine without the little building across the road. The Reptile House will, like so many pieces of Baltimore history, be a thing of the past. What happens to the zoo that remains depends on us.

Additional reporting contributed by Christina Royster-Hemby.

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