Unless you work in one, you probably don’t do much thinking about zoos. You used to visit them as a child, you may take your own children if you have any, but that’s about it. At most, as a visitor, you’ll think of zoos approximately once a year; when you’re thinking about visiting them. Aside from that they just exist outside of your sphere of interest.
Despite that, we tend to think they’ll always be there. After all, what could replace them? Video and DVD rental stores closed down because of streaming. Many high street goods stores have shut down because people order online. Zoos, though, seem to be future-proof. Until the day comes you can 3D-print a gorilla and have it appear in your front room; they offer a service that can’t be replicated or replaced by the internet. You can look at pictures of animals all day long (and many people do!), but it’s just not the same as seeing them with your own eyes.
Presuming that zoos will always be there is a dangerous move, though. Even if what they do as a business can’t be replicated, the way they do their business is under threat both in terms of importing and feeding animals, and public perception. For every article you read saying that zoos are necessary to protect animals against hunting, habitat loss and extinction events, there’s another one saying that zoos are cruel, inhumane and should be closed down. It seems that it’s no longer possible just to go for an innocent trip to the zoo; you’re now choosing a side in the debate on whether they’re little more than prisons for animals.
In among all this economic uncertainty are zoos just trying as hard as they can to keep the doors open. Take a moment to think about the practicality of running a zoo. You have staff to pay, a lot of animals to feed (some of them exotic, and requiring specialist diets), massive amounts of cleaning to do, an enormous expanse of land to maintain and be responsible for (and, in some cases, pay rent on), and attractions to find periodically in order to bring new visitors in. That’s a lot of expense, and those are just the obvious costs. How do zoos make money? Where do they even get their animals from? How do they even begin to balance the books?
As you may now be realizing, it’s about far more than just charging a few dollars at the gates.
Zoos As Charities
Regardless of how much a zoo charges for you to walk through the gates, it likely isn’t the primary source of their income. Visitor numbers are too infrequent and seasonal for most zoos to survive on them alone. The money definitely helps, but it doesn’t keep them in the black.
Look up your local zoo on Google, and you’ll likely find that there’s a ‘not for profit’ or charity group involved in the running of it. In real terms, that means there are likely to be sponsorship opportunities for businesses and individuals to help out with the running costs in return for some promotional opportunities, as well as a funnel through which donations can be processed free of tax. That’s where the bulk of the money comes from. If there’s a McDonald’s in the zoo nearest to you and you’ve always wondered why, now you know.
Fortunately, acquiring animals doesn’t tend to be a significant expense anymore. The majority of zoos are about conservation more than they’re about profit, and so they won’t spend huge amounts of money to uproot an animal from elsewhere. Most animals you find zoos are the product of breeding programs, and were bred in captivity. Sometimes that means an animal might be transported from one zoo to the other for breeding, and then moved back again.
When a zoo does spend money, it’s usually for a ‘feature’ animal that will get people through the gates, and they tend to be bought from another zoo elsewhere in the world. An American zoo would, for example, have to spend money to bring in a rhino, as they don’t occur naturally outside of Asia and Africa. Most people go to zoos to see animals they can’t see anywhere else, and so that makes imports essential. A rhino is a great example of the kind of wild beast that people are interested in; a creature with a fierce reputation that’s so well known it’s even been used as the symbol of the Great Rhino online slot game, where it stampedes across your screen when you find winning lines. The slot might be the only place where you’d be happier to see a stampeding rhino than a zoo, because it means you’ve won money. By contrast, if you saw one in the wild, you’d want to run in the other direction!
The Cost Nobody Considers
If you’re currently working out how you’d fund your theoretical zoo, and you’ve factored in all the staff that you think you’d need, along with all the costs of the food and the maintenance of the animals and their enclosures, we guarantee there’s a major cost you’ve forgotten. Insurance.
Unsurprisingly, you need quite a lot of insurance to operate an attraction where human beings are separated from savage animals by thin layers of glass or fencing, and that insurance doesn’t come cheaply. When you add that into the mix, the $50 or more your local zoo probably charges for a day ticket seems a lot more understandable.
So Can You Make Money Running A Zoo At All?
It’s difficult, and it’s not really the reason most zoos exist. Whatever you think of their prices and methods, most zoos are owned and operated by people who genuinely want to ensure the survival of animals; especially endangered species.
There are obvious and notable exceptions. The largest zoo in the United Kingdom is Chester Zoo, which averages a little over 1.7m visitors each year. Those visitors pay around $25 each, giving them an income of $42.5m before any sponsorship or trust money comes in. It’s safe to say they’re running at a profit. Some of that money goes into enhancing the zoo, and the result is that they’re considered one of the best in the world. To get all those visitors in, though, you need the land, the animals, the licenses and insurances. Chester Zoo opened in a time before regulation and restrictions became what they are now; a start-up zoo facing current costs for land, planning and all the rest would probably be priced out of the market before they began.
In conclusion, there is money to be made in the zoo economy…but only if you’re already involved in it. If you’re considering running an unusual or unconventional business, we’d suggest you look elsewhere.