American zoos are visited by more than 100 million people every year, a number that exceeds the combined attendance of all professional baseball, football, and basketball games, according to data from National Geographic.
Zoos educate visitors through naturalistic exhibits, conservation initiatives, animal interaction, and in-depth programming. However, providing a meaningful educational experience is expensive, and most local governments cannot undertake that strain on their budget. To keep these important educational institutions afloat, over 75 percent of them across the United States are turning to public/private partnerships (P3s). These partnerships can eliminate or significantly reduce the amount of taxpayer money going to zoos and provide specialized support for fundraising initiatives and zoo operations.
Four cities demonstrate how utilizing public/private partnerships have made their zoos standards for educational excellence.
In 1909, the Fort Worth Zoo opened with one lion, two bear cubs, an alligator, a coyote, a peacock, and rabbits. It was owned and operated by the city of Fort Worth, but by the 1980s, the zoo faced decreasing support and funding from the city. The Fort Worth Zoological Association (FWZA), formed in 1939, was left essentially defunct.
But all that changed in 1983 when a young woman named Ramona Seeligson Bass went on a date with her future husband, Lee Bass. They went to the rundown Fort Worth Zoo; a visit that redefined her life priorities. She made a decision to transform the zoo. In this effort, she gained the support of noted Fort Worth wildlife conservationist Harry Tennison, his daughter, Kit Moncrief, and philanthropist Whitney Hyder More. The group started Zoo Ball in 1985, a fundraising event designed to infuse necessary funds into the organization. Bass became co-chair of the zoological association’s board of directors. Ardon Moore, the association’s president, approached the city with a proposal to create a public/private partnership to manage the zoo. As part of this agreement, the city of Fort Worth would retain ownership of the zoo while FWZA would operate it and raise funds to support it. With the mayor’s support, the plan was approved in 1991, and the partnership ultimately became a model for zoos nationwide.
The following year, the zoo underwent a transformation and hosted a grand re-opening celebration that showcased the zoo’s commitment to higher standards of animal care, habitat design, and educational programming. In the 31 years since the partnership was established, the Fort Worth Zoo has grown to 300 full-time employees with an annual budget of $40 million. In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the Fort Worth Zoo drove an economic impact of $228.5 million for the city.
Image courtesy of Dan Dennis via Unsplash
In the early 2000s, the Topeka Zoo was in disarray. Operational mismanagement and the deaths of several animals led the zoo to lose accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2001. While it regained its accreditation a couple of years later in the 2010s, it began to consider turning over zoo management to the Friends of the Topeka Zoo, a non-profit organization that had long served as a fundraising arm. “Things are going pretty well at the Topeka Zoo,” said Brendan Wiley, the organization’s CEO in a 2019 Topeka Capital-Journal article. And for that reason, he felt it was time to consider if the zoo’s governing structure was best to facilitate future growth.
Ultimately in 2021, the Topeka City Council decided to transition daily operations to FOTZ. The move was made to streamline operations, including employee management, increase budget flexibility, and make the zoo a more attractive target for philanthropy. It was thought that people would be more willing to donate to the zoo if it was a non-profit organization versus a government department. In 2021, the Topeka Zoo drove $7.1 million in revenue.
Image courtesy of Matthew via Adobe Stock
Established in 1992, the Oakland Zoo is home today to more than 850 native and exotic animals. It is recognized for its rescue, rehabilitation, conservation programs, and state-of-the-art veterinary hospital—the largest wild animal veterinary facility in Northern California.
In 1999, their education center opened, and today, the zoo provides free and discounted science programs for underserved students. The Oakland Zoo’s California Trail offers an opportunity for young children to learn about California wildlife and their habitats, and conservation research, as well as gain an understanding of the delicate balance between humans and nature.
Maintaining a zoo that regularly wins “Best of” Awards takes a lot of support. The Conservation Society of California, which operates the Oakland Zoo, was established in 1932 as the East Bay Zoological Society. The non-profit has maintained the zoo since 1982 and has guided it towards an era of tremendous growth. As of October 2022, the Oakland Zoo sees close to a million visitors each year and has an annual operating budget between $23 and $24 million. The zoo also drove $28.1 million in revenue in 2022.
Along with receiving 11 percent of its operating budget from the City of Oakland and East Bay Regional Parks District, funding comes from individual donors, corporate partners, and memberships. Generous annual public support allows the Oakland Zoo to keep admission prices low and accessible for residents and tourists.
Image courtesy of Oakland Zoo
The 84-acre Tulsa Zoo is home to over 1,500 animals and has over 600,000 annual visitors. The Lost Kingdom Exhibit Complex is inspired by ancient Asian cultures and allows guests to roam through lush garden settings. Lost Kingdom is home to some of Asia’s rarest and most elusive species, including Malayan tigers, snow leopards, Chinese alligators, and Komodo dragons.
The City of Tulsa has owned the zoo since opening in 1927. However, in an effort to maintain the quality of the facility while facing years of budget cuts, Tulsa Zoo Management, Inc. (TZMI) was established. The 501c3 non-profit organization, governed by a volunteer board of directors and consisting of former zookeepers, maintenance workers, and members of the former Tulsa Zoo Friends group, now operates the facility. The organization was formed in 2010 to promote and support the improvement of the Tulsa Zoo. In addition to operations, Tulsa Zoo Management is responsible for directing all fundraising for capital improvements and future exhibits at the zoo.
The impact of TZMI is evident. In the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the zoo reported revenue after expenses of $805,349. In 2021, that number was $7.02 million.
Image courtesy of Tulsa Zoo