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Vetoed spending impacts panther habitat expansion

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Posted at 10:47 PM, Jun 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-30 23:39:39-04

TAMPA, Fla. -- Budget vetoes aren’t sparing the Florida panthers in the midst of the pandemic.

On Monday, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the state budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021. It totaled more than $92 billion, and included more than $1 billion in vetoed spending.

On the chopping block was the $500,000 initially set aside for ZooTampa.

“It wasn’t a surprise. We understand there’s an awful lot of challenges that the governor and legislature are taking on right now, so it really didn’t take us by surprise,” said CEO and president Joe Couceiro.

The state budget veto impacts a project that would expand the panther's habitat at the zoo. Couceiro said it’s estimated to cost around $2.5 million, though it hasn’t broken ground yet.

“So we currently have two panthers in residence at the zoo presently and that takes up space. When we have additional panthers that are hurt. We need to have more space in order to be able to accommodate them and put them in suitable surroundings and that’s what this project was all about,” said Couceiro.
The zoo’s chief zoological officer said human-animal interactions are increasing, with panthers coming out on the bad side of it.

“This is the rarest large mammal in the state of Florida on the land so it’s incredible we have this animal in our backyard. And yet, as we grow and expand our population, we’re gonna have these interactions,” said Dr. Larry Killmar.
Couceiro said the project may be delayed by about a year.
The zoo isn’t alone, though. Zoo Miami and the Florida Aquarium also received vetoes in the state budget.

“While we’re not happy necessarily that we’re not getting our funds, we certainly understand the funds are needed in other areas right now so we’ll manage and we’ll look for other sources and we’ll come back next year,” said Couceiro.
Couceiro said the pandemic has had a significant impact on the zoo. It shut down for more than two months before reopening in May.

Now, he said they’re managing the number of people coming into the park while making sure safety protocols are consistently executed each day.

The governor released this statement Monday after signing the budget:
“Despite the present challenges Florida faces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 Budget ensures the state’s priorities are protected and funded,” said Governor DeSantis. “Our current economic landscape is vastly different since the Legislature passed this budget in March. As Governor, I must remain a mindful steward of taxpayer dollars. This budget reflects a steadfast commitment to Floridians by safeguarding important investments in key areas including education, the environment, infrastructure, public safety and more. As we move forward with our Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step. Plan for Florida’s Recovery, we will overcome the adversities before us and emerge stronger than before.”