All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1993

Zoo, Inc.

Private zookeepers are successfully rejuvenating troubled zoos.

David Haarmeyer is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation. Elizabeth Larson writes for Reason magazine.

What do you do with a homeless peacock? Zookeepers had to deal with such problems when the petting zoo at Manhattan’s Central Park closed in 1991 because of New York City’s budget troubles. Most of the petting zoo’s inhabitants found new homes with local families. Fortunately for both zoo animals and the children who visit them, many cities are privatizing their zoos rather than letting the gates close for good.

For years, private zoological societies worked alongside city zoo officials, raising funds and running education programs and concession stands. Now, as local governments are forced to rein in runaway budgets, zoological societies are taking charge of operating entire zoos. Nearly 40 percent of the 165 American zoos accredited by the American Zoological Association—among them, zoos in Fort Worth, Cincinnati, New Orleans, San Diego, and Jackson, Mississippi—are run by private, nonprofit societies. And that figure is on the rise: Officials in Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Fresno, California, and Birmingham, Alabama, among other U.S. cities, are now considering privatization as well.

The success of privately financed and managed zoos should not be surprising. After all, running a zoo is foremost a problem of managing resources. Like large corporations, good zoos operate by balancing a number of potentially conflicting objectives: education, research, conservation, and recreation. Shutting off the flow of subsidies from general taxpayers (many of whom may not have a taste for zoos) makes good management essential, benefiting both a zoo’s animals and its patrons.

The fact that privately operated zoos may spend only what funds they raise necessitates cost-effective operations—managers who keep their eyes on the bottom line—as well as creativity in the form of more exotic animals, grander housing that actually looks like the plains of the Serengeti or the jungles of Brazil, high-tech, hands-on experimental displays for kids that are fun and educational. In striving to please zoo patrons, good zookeepers will improve the well-being of their animals, ensuring not only clean concession areas but clean zoo cages.

Financial independence brings two other important aspects to zoo management. In addition to revenue from admissions and concessions, zoos depend on donations from local families, corporations, and nonprofit groups. These sources tend to donate more to private organizations than to government programs, over which donors have little control. Unlike government, which has a notoriously short time horizon, private zoos offer stability. Donors can be confident that the large sums they contribute for long-term projects will be used properly.

In contrast to non-zoo-loving taxpayers, who have little interest in how bureaucrats run “their” zoo, those individuals and corporations who donate time and money to a zoo have a strong interest in seeing that it is well run and in holding zoo managers accountable for their decisions. Like major shareholders of corporations, these zoo stakeholders are often board members and play an important role in monitoring the zoo’s management and financial affairs.


The Philadelphia Zoo: A Model of Private Operation

Although privatizing zoos appears to be a trend for the ‘90s, private zoos have been around for decades. The oldest zoo in the United States—the Philadelphia Zoo, operated since 1859 by the Philadelphia Zoological Society—has given supporters of privately operated zoos something to crow about for many years. The society’s efficient management and imaginative exhibits make it the obvious model for zoo officials considering privatization today.

Not a penny of the Philadelphia Zoo’s $14 million operating and capital budgets for 1991 came from government coffers. Instead, the zoo depended on admission fees (76 percent of revenues), memberships, corporate support, and special events to keep its budget balanced. Society members have come up with such creative annual fundraisers as the Zoobilee! party, the Teddy Bear Rally, the Ben Franklin Look-Alike contest, and the Run Wild at the Zoo 10-kilometer race.

And to continue attracting patrons, members of the Philadelphia Zoological Society have made their zoo more than just a park with caged beasts. For children of any age, the 42-acre Philadelphia Zoo is an adventure. One of the more spectacular exhibits is the Treehouse. Visitors walk past gigantic fiberglass frog eggs and a mammoth tree or through monstrous replicas of bees and honeycombs. You imagine that you’ve shrunk to the size of the creatures whose “environment” you’re exploring, and you can feel and smell exactly what it’s like. Bear Country and the World of Primates offer other close-up views of life in the animal kingdom.

The Philadelphia Zoological Society has had so much success running its own zoo that the group has formed a for-profit management-consulting subsidiary, which now helps other zoos put their finances in order. Rick Biddle, chief operating officer of the Zoological Society, points to a new $8-million aquarium across the river in Camden, New Jersey, as one of the subsidiary’s latest success stories. The society will be taking over operation of this underwater zoo as well.

America’s oldest zoo is not the only model for officials considering privatization. Southern California is home to what is probably the best-known private zoo in the United States. Since opening in 1922, the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park have been in the hands of the San Diego Zoological Society. Thanks to the society’s nearly 200,000 members—the world’s largest zoo membership—only two percent of the zoo and park’s $480-million operating budget comes from the local government.

More than 18,000 visitors came out for the grand re-opening of the recently privatized Fort Worth Zoo last spring. An editorial in the Fort Worth Evening Star-Telegram hailed the “new primate house, the Asian Falls with its 40-foot waterfall and the natural environment that has been created for some of the world’s most wonderful creatures,” as well as one local family whose generous donations to the zoo made many of the renovations and new exhibits possible. The paper’s editorial staff also pointed out that while many might have originally thought privatizing meant restricting access to the public, privatization of the Fort Worth Zoo encouraged “the generosity of a few private citizens” and, thanks to their donations, the zoo has actually “been opened to more people than ever before.”

Not all zoos have cut themselves off from public funds cold turkey, however. In 1978, officials in Knoxville, Tennessee, turned over the city zoo to the private, nonprofit Knoxville Zoological Society. It was understood at the time, says the zoo’s director, Ted Beattie, that the zoo would eventually become completely self-supporting. The society now receives just $400,000 (about 12 percent) of its $2.9-million annual operating budget from the Knoxville city government.

Another privatized zoo that has all but weaned itself from public funds is the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium in New Orleans. The Audubon Institute Inc. runs the zoo and aquarium on a $20 million annual operating budget with 600 employees. The city has given the Audubon Institute about $1 million over the last three years, none of which was used to balance the books; it has all gone to capital improvements. Audubon Institute officials hope to turn their zoo into “a regional Smithsonian” and are planning a breeding center for endangered species.

While a few such private zoos still accept government subsidies, most believe that getting government out of the zoo business is in their long-term interest. In Boston, the state-operated Franklin Park Zoo will soon be turned over to the Commonwealth Corporation, which will work alongside the Commonwealth Zoological Association. State employees of the zoo, which currently has a $2.85-million budget, are expected to be employed eventually by the private corporation.


The Problems of Mixing Public and Private Management

Predictably, government zoo officials aren’t always eager to hand over the reins. As a result, some zoos have developed co-management/ownership arrangements between government officials and private, nonprofit zoological societies. If the experience of the Los Angeles Zoo is any indication, however, mixing public and private managers can be just as messy as letting government do the job alone.

The much-publicized power struggles between the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association and the L.A. Recreation and Parks Commission resulted in the resignation in November 1991 of the Association’s president, Bruce Nasby, who had raised paid association memberships from 80,000 to some 135,000 during his 3.5-year tenure. The lion’s share of the responsibility for running the L.A. Zoo has returned to the city government, but the Zoo Association continues to lend a hand: the association contributes some $9 million to the zoo’s $25 million annual budget and is still in charge of the concession stands. With both private and public keepers still involved in managing the L.A. Zoo, accountability is diffused and the source of contention remains.

At the Metrozoo in Miami, Florida, tension between the zoo’s public keepers and private fundraisers has been growing for nearly a decade. The Zoological Society of Southern Florida thinks city officials put too much emphasis on salaries and employee benefits and too little on zoo maintenance and promotion. Of the zoo’s $7.6-million operating budget for 1990, 68 percent went for salaries and benefits. And $2.9 million of the budget came in the form of subsidies from the county coffers.

The Zoological Society, on the other hand, has had no trouble raising funds to improve life for the animals and attracting more visitors. In 1985, with 43,000 members, the society built the zoo’s $1 million animal hospital. By 1990, society membership had nearly doubled to 71,000, and the organization was able to contribute $1.1 million toward the new $1.32 million Asian River Life exhibit.

Society president Sherrill Hudson hopes to make the Metrozoo as good as or better than the private San Diego Zoo. “We need to do a lot of fundraising,” she told the Miami Herald. “There’s no question that everywhere people are skeptical about giving money over to the government. The private sector could do it, though. We could build the zoo out in five to seven years.”

Bill Bird, director of the local County Park and Recreation Department, dismisses the notion that any private group could finish the Metrozoo in that amount of time. At most, public officials see the possibility that someday both the county and the society might operate the zoo together “as a hybrid creature.”

Private zookeepers are successfully rejuvenating troubled zoos because, unlike their public counterparts, they have clear incentives to manage their zoos as they would a business. As with any business, the customer is king, and with today’s heightened awareness of environmental issues, zoo patrons want to visit animals that are healthy and well cared for. Because funding is directly tied to the satisfaction of a zoo’s visitors, private zoos are proving themselves not just better at balancing their budgets but at acting as caretakers of animals and teachers of men.