San Francisco Zoo Tries to Claw Back to Prosperity
After Attraction Rebounded From Fatal Tiger Attack, Recession Hit; Layoffs, Cuts to Programs Lead to Slight Profit
SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA JANUARY 21, 2010
By BEN WORTHEN
The San Francisco Zoo, one of the city’s oldest attractions, can’t catch a break.
Just when it seemed that the zoo had rebounded from a 2007 fatal tiger attack, the recession has eroded its donor base and reduced the number of visitors. Last year the zoo laid off employees, reduced its hours and cut back on its animal breeding programs.
“They are living hand to mouth,” says Jim Lazarus, president of the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department, which manages the city’s relationship with the zoo.
The zoo’s executive director, Tanya Peterson, says the situation isn’t that dire. But she acknowledges the zoo—which opened in 1929 and boasts about 250 species of animals, including giraffes, grizzly bears and a troop of gorillas—has been hit by a “double whammy” of the economy and tiger attack. Revenue is down, but the recent cuts have been enough to get the zoo into the black, she says.
Over the past six months, the zoo has attracted 401,327 visitors, with the portion of paid visits down 11% from the year-earlier period, says Ms. Peterson. The zoo charges $15 for admission, though San Francisco residents get in for $12. Children receive reduced admissions or get in free depending on their age.
In contrast, nationwide zoo attendance is up, says Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which represents 271 such organizations across the country. Zoos in Ohio, Missouri and Oregon all announced a record number of visitors in 2009 as families turned to more affordable trips, he says, though a drop in donations and other revenue sources has caused many zoos to cut expenses.
Meanwhile, attendance at the Oakland Zoo was up 5% in 2009 and revenue climbed 9%, says Nancy Filippi, the zoo’s director of marketing.
The San Francisco Zoo’s tough straits are a turnabout from its heyday last decade. Between 2002 and 2007, it opened cutting-edge natural habitats for lemurs, African plain animals including giraffes, zebras and ostriches, and a pair of orphaned grizzly bears. Largely because of these investments, attendance peaked at 1.1 million visitors in 2007.
Then on Christmas Day 2007, a Siberian tiger leapt out of its enclosure and mauled three visitors, killing one. Attendance quickly dropped and the zoo’s director resigned in the aftermath. The zoo later spent $850,000 to upgrade animal enclosures, tapping a line of credit to fund the projects. For the zoo’s 2008 fiscal year, which ended that June, it lost $2.2 million, or about 10% of its budget.
The investments in improved enclosures were necessary because “we had to reassure the public we are safe,” says Ms. Peterson.
By mid-2008, attendance was rising, Ms. Peterson says. Then the recession hit. Corporate donations, one of the zoo’s largest sources of revenue, dropped almost 75% in 2009. The zoo also wasn’t able to pay its utility bill. By June 2009, it had amassed a $1.2 million bill, which the city agreed to allow the zoo to repay over several years.
In September 2009, a man climbed into the grizzly bear exhibit—scaling an electrified fence in the process—an event reminiscent of the tiger incident. Ms. Peterson says the fact that zoo staff secured the bears and removed the visitor before he suffered any harm is proof the changes the zoo made are effective.
Over the past 12 months, the zoo laid off some employees, furloughed others, and offered early retirement packages for some city employees who still worked there. It also made cuts to programs aimed at animal conservation, such as a program that bred bald eagles, says Ms. Peterson. In November, the zoo started closing at 4 p.m., an hour earlier than normal, largely because there aren’t enough visitors late in the day to justify keeping a full staff on hand, says Ms. Peterson. It plans to resume normal hours in March.
The zoo also canceled some educational programs and its popular Christmastime reindeer exhibit. On one recent Sunday, the zoo was nearly empty, and most of the concession stands were closed.
Thanks to last year’s cuts, the zoo ended its 2009 fiscal year with a slight profit and recently paid off its $1.1 million line of credit. In one positive sign, the zoo has already received four corporate donations this year, ranging from $5,000 to $45,000.
Still, visitors say they see the belt-tightening. “It’s pretty clear that the zoo is in trouble,” says Kim Smith, a member who attends the zoo regularly with her 2-year old son. “But we still have a good time seeing the animals.”