WATERFALLS splash down piled rocks as tropical birds shriek in the lush vegetation and thick humidity. In natural-like settings, gorillas, bongos, and 150 other animals climb, swim, and forage. Periodic rainstorms and the sound of thunder help complete the feeling for visitors that they are trekking through a rain forest instead of through the African Tropical Forest pavilion in Boston's Franklin Park Zoo.
Boston prides itself on being the ``Athens of America'' with world-class universities, museums, a symphony, and sports teams. Now it is struggling to lift its deteriorating zoological park system to world-class status, too.
Just a short walk from Franklin's modern rain-forest exhibit are the seemingly frozen reminders of another zoological era. Chain-link fences, rusty in spots, separate camels, zebras, and other hoofed animals. Some signs identifying animals are faded and crooked. A brick and stone antelope house, built in 1930, has been abandoned for 20 years.
MetroParks Zoo director Mark Goldstein admits conditions for this area should be better. But he says it will also be turned around, if given half a chance.
``If you came here a year ago, you would have seen 50 people,'' Mr. Goldstein says. ``Today you see yellow school buses stacked next to each other. I now think we have a three-dimensional example of what a good zoo can do.''
For several decades, Boston's almost century-old state-funded MetroPark zoos - Franklin Park in Dorchester and Walter D. Stone Memorial Zoo in Stoneham - have failed to keep pace with changes in zoo design that have improved animal living conditions and boosted attendance and interest in other US zoos.
Until recently, national zoo authorities considered Franklin Park Zoo one of the nation's worst because of poor management and deteriorating conditions. That decline has come at a time when recognition has been growing among many biologists that zoos represent a valuable gene pool for endangered species.
A new zoo director and the opening of the African Tropical Forest exhibit last September have helped bring the state-run facilities national recognition and increased attendance. But zoo supporters say the state's budget crisis threatens the progress.
While a Senate budget would provide almost level funding of $3.4 million, a House plan would slice zoo appropriations to $1.6 million. The budget is being hashed out, but Mr. Goldstein says, ``If we get that 56 percent cut, Stone Zoo is gone. Franklin Park will go into a tailspin.''
Massachusetts is one of only three states in the nation that have state-run zoos. The other two are the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro and the Minnesota Zoological Garden in Apple Valley. Yet they are exemplary zoos, receive sufficient state support, and draw many people, says Robert Wagner, director of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.
Budgets of zoos serving similar metropolitan areas of about 2.2 million people - including the Miami MetroZoo, the Baltimore Zoo, and the Atlanta Zoo - ranged from $4 million to $7 million in 1988-89, with up to $23 million in capital improvements. The MetroParks zoos rank last.
For zoo proponents here, this paints a bleak picture.
``We have the beginnings of a good zoo in Franklin Park, and I'm afraid we're blowing this opportunity because we're not willing to do things that are necessary to ensure its continued progress,'' says Rep. John McDonough (D) of Jamaica Plain.
One of the things zoo supporters say would ensure this progress is a bill now under consideration that would wean the zoo's operation from the state and create a 15-member public, nonprofit corporation to manage them. Goldstein says this restructuring would allow one organization to focus solely on the welfare of the zoos. ``Presently there are decisions being made about zoos by people who have to also consider 25 other issues,'' he says.
Proponents say the proposed Commonwealth Zoological Corporation could also be more aggressive about fund raising and say corporations will be more willing to donate money. Corporations shy away from funding the zoos now because the money has to wind its way through the state bureaucracy, Goldstein says.
But the state's inspector general's office says the organization would be counterproductive because it would take money out of already limited zoo funds in order to pay for such services as legal and accounting fees - services now under the state, but which are necessary to set up an independent authority.
``It's not a panacea, it's a step backward. It will deplete whatever funds are available to the tune of $700,000 a year,'' says Steve Cotton, the inspector general's first assistant.
Goldstein doesn't deny the extra cost but says the expense of going to that transition should be considered an investment in tourism dollars - the state's second largest industry.
Other zoos around the country are run in a variety of different ways, Mr. Wagner says. Some are city or county operated; others are operated by zoological societies or in a partnership between zoological societies and a governing authority; some are private enterprise. No way is better than another, he says.
Richard Buske, director of operations at the Minnesota Zoological Garden, says his zoo went through a restructuring five years ago to a public nonprofit organization. ``There isn't any one format that we found was more successful than another. It just depends on how it is being perceived in the public eye and how those governments are in terms of stability,'' he says.
What's clear about Boston is that nobody can seem to pinpoint the problem. Some say there are two zoos and that resources have to be divided between each. Others say the site of Franklin Park - located in what some consider an unsafe area - deters people from coming. Others like Mr. Cotton say the battle lies within how much the legislature is willing to appropriate. So what is at the root of Boston's problem with its zoos?
``Many people throughout North America are asking the same question because [Boston] is known as a cultural center, and does a magnificent job with one of the finest aquariums in the world,'' Wagner says.
Searching for an answer, Mr. Goldstein is just as stumped.
``It's an age-old question. I get people who come to visit me and if they like basketball I can show them a great basketball team; they like art, I can show them a great art museum. If they like zoos, other than the tropical forest and a few choice exhibits at Stone, I'm embarrassed.''