Zoos all over the country are facing financial difficulties as states slash their funds and attendance dwindles. From raised ticket prices to kicked-out koalas, zoos and their critters are feeling the crunch.
But some organizations are using creative measures to keep their facilities open and up to par.
Most zoo administrators agree that things have not been the same since the Sept. 11 attacks. Slowing air travel, an even slower job market and repeated terror alerts have prevented many Americans from visiting zoos big and small.
Even flagship zoos saw drops in attendance: the National Zoo in Washington saw a 16 percent decrease between 2002 and 2003, while the Bronx Zoo in New York City fell by 18 percent, with under two million visitors in 2003, according to figures provided by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (search) (AZA).
To make matters worse, budget-crunched states have cut millions of dollars from the budgets of zoos already grappling with a slumped economy.
The North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., receives about 60 percent of its budget from the state, which has cut the zoo's budget by $1 million each of the last three years, spokesman Rod Hackney said — and that's only part of the problem. The ticket booth saw only 576,000 visitors last year, about 100,000 fewer than the previous year.
"Not only are fewer people coming but corporations that formerly gave large contributions to the zoo can't afford to do that anymore," Hackney said.
Hackney harkened back to the glory days, when in 1995 over 934,000 people visited the zoo, but said they haven't seen numbers near that since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Over the last three years we've seen a decline in attendance... which is a reflection in the downturn in the economy. People don't have extra money to do recreational activities; paying the bills and feeding the kids comes first."
The Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore., which is the number-one fee-based attraction in the state, has also been struggling financially and recently raised ticket prices by 50 cents.
"Prior to spring break it looked like [the] zoo was going to come in $250,000 short," said spokesman Bill LaMarche.
The zoo is even having trouble paying its water bill. To make ends meet, LaMarche said the zoo is planning to cut some staff and close the insect zoo.
The state of Maryland cut approximately $750,000 from the Baltimore Zoo in 2003, and as a result the zoo was forced to slash 20 jobs, remove 400 reptiles, amphibians and birds. It also had to bid a sad farewell to elephants Dolly and Anna last November.
According to the Baltimore Sun, in 2002 the Toledo Zoo also had to send two beloved koalas that had been on loan since 1991 back to the San Diego Zoo. Private donors who had until then helped cover the annual costs of shipping in five and a half tons of eucalyptus, the only food the bears will eat, had been hit by the economic downturn.
But enterprising officials and animal lovers are seeking — and finding — ways to return zoos to their former glory.
In Baltimore, the zoo launched a fundraising drive in order to obtain a matching grant — and raised more than $1 million. The campaign, which had a Feb. 14 cut-off, featured pachydermic valentines from Dolly and Anna.
Hope is also blossoming in Oregon, where turning a regular activity into a spectator event brought in crowds. Animal enrichment — giving critters new toys, puzzles and food to keep them interested and challenged — is standard practice, but this year the zoo scheduled the enrichment sessions and gave them a spring break theme. Animals received tropical treats, brightly colored toys, and the zoo beckoned with slogans like: "If you can't get to Palm Springs this spring break come to the zoo."
It worked — March had record attendance. Said LaMarche: "It has been a challenge but it feels like we're turning a corner."
Hackney of the North Carolina Zoo said private funds raised by the zoo society have helped offset some of the costs. A new Australian exhibit was paid for entirely with donations.
And he said raising ticket prices is not on the agenda.
"We have not raised ticket prices in three years. Part of that is because of the economy; we don't want to put any greater burden on our visitors. We haven't reduced hours or closed any exhibits."
Many zoos will be forced to make cuts, but all try to do them as behind-the-scenes as possible to keep up appearances.
"We've had to eliminate any purchasing of new equipment — trucks, tractors, and we haven't bought any new trams in three or four years, we're just repairing the old ones," said Hackney. "We've done a tremendous job of trying to recycle and conserve. Even animal waste is recycled and used as fertilizer on our plants."
And despite cuts and attendance dips, zoos are staying focused on their mission.
"Our number one priority is maintenance and care of the animals," said Hackney. "We have not cut back in any way on that. We may be unable to give raises to our people but have made sure that at all costs the animals are taken care of."
After all, zoos can take heart from the fact that crowds are still turning out in greater numbers to see living animals than for any other spectacles, including sports.
In 2002, according to the AZA, over 142 million people visited America's 210 zoos, more than the total attendance of 125 million for professional football, baseball, hockey, and basketball combined.