Minnesota Zoo officials are seeking an emergency infusion of $1.5 million in state aid to maintain operations after declining attendance and increased expenses for salaries and animal feed blew a hole in the attraction's budget.

While zoo officials publicly deny that it would be a financial bailout, they admit that further cuts to the zoo budget could mean closed exhibits and further staff layoffs.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he supports the extra money for the zoo but is concerned zoo officials didn't do a better job budgeting.

"I support the deficiency request, because, I'm told, without it the zoo would have to close exhibits, transfer animals to other zoos, lay off staff, and severely disrupt its operations," Dayton said in a written statement to the Star Tribune. "However, I am very concerned that the zoo board and managers arrived in this predicament, and I expect the Legislature will properly take a close look at its costs, funding, and future plans during this session."

The zoo's request is already before the Minnesota Legislature, tucked into a bill seeking supplemental funding for food assistance, the Minnesota Security Hospital and Ebola-related costs.

Zoo supporters and board members said the deficit was caused by unforeseen circumstances.

The zoo is a state agency, "so it's our responsibility to make sure they have the funding they need," said Rep. Anna Wills, R-Apple Valley, whose district includes the zoo. "I feel like it's not going to be an ongoing [problem]. This is just kind of a bump in the road and we'll get back on track."

When the state lifted a salary freeze, mandating that the zoo provide employee raises, the institution was forced to swallow about $1 million in additional expenses, said zoo spokeswoman Beth Burns.

Compounding the problem, the cost of animal feed and utilities went up while attendance slumped 4.5 percent in vital summer months. Zoo officials attributed the lack of visitors to bad weather.

As a result, seven staff members were notified that their positions had been terminated in October. The layoffs and other expense reductions helped save the state-run facility $500,000.

Given its budget shortfalls, a supplemental appropriation request had to be made for renewed financial health, Burns said. The Minnesota Zoo Board of Trustees recommended they submit that request to the state in October.

"We have made cuts to our budget to a point where any additional cuts would affect the guest experience," Burns said. "That could include exhibit closures and would likely include additional layoffs."

Changing budgets

The zoo hit a record high of more than 1.3 million annual visitors in 2012 after major new exhibits opened. But attendance has slowed in the lull between additions.

The Minnesota Zoo is a state agency. About 32 percent of its roughly $25 million operating budget is public funding, and the state has provided tens of millions for major capital projects, such as new exhibits.

In his time on the zoo board, trustee Mike Erlandson said he's been impressed with the zoo's leadership — fiscal and otherwise. Costs simply went up above what they expected, he said.

"Maybe folks should have anticipated changes to the state employees' [pay], but I think that's a hard one to budget for. You don't know necessarily when it would happen," said Erlandson.

But, he said, it doesn't make sense to continue shredding the zoo's operating budget when much of the deficit stems from a salary change made at the Legislature, which he described as a "parent to the Minnesota Zoo."

Although the state may be lending a hand, Erlandson and other zoo officials said they don't consider the funding a bailout. The agency made its own difficult cuts, he said, so now "we're making sure the zoo is not harmed … because of things that were out of their control."

In light of the economic struggles, zoo officials have also re-examined their vision for the future.

An ambitious master plan from 2012 to expand the campus with a sprawling new Africa trail and high-end events center — with its first phase costing $50 million — has been amended. The new strategy, ratified in October, will look at opening a $20 million snow monkey exhibit in 2017.

Liz Sawyer • 952-746-3282