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Business Operations Supporting Conservation

By Tom Price

Zoo Boise in Boise, Idaho, considers all of its visitors to be conservationists.

Just by buying an admission ticket, a visitor contributes 50 cents to the Zoo Boise Conservation Fund. Purchase of an annual pass raises $5 for the fund. Fees for several activities—a solar-powered boat ride, as well as feeding giraffes, sloth bears and the Zoo’s farm animals—generate 25 cents to $3 for the fund. Purchases at the gift shop and food concessions produce more income for conservation projects. And 10 percent of money raised for capital improvement projects goes to conservation.

Taken together, operating income now contributes between $250,000 and $300,000 annually to conservation activities—a total of more than $1.7 million since the Zoo adopted this conservation focus in 2008, said Steve Burns, director of Zoo Boise and chair of the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums need to step up their support for conservation because “the animals in our collections are going extinct in the wild,” Burns said, and operating income can be an undertapped source for that support.

Conservation is “a core mission” for zoos and aquariums, said Adrienne Rowland, director of the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev., and a member of the AZA Business Operations Committee. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“A lot of facilities have become more business savvy,” she said. “Being smarter about how they run their businesses means they can return more to the bottom line, which means they have more money for other initiatives.”

Burns said that dedicating specific revenue streams to conservation “guarantees you’ll have money” for that purpose. “When we look at giraffe feeding, we never think of money to pay the light bill.” Zoos and aquariums are ideally positioned to raise substantial money for conservation, he added. “Collectively, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have 180 million visitors a year. Get a donation for conservation from all those 180 million people, and we can be one of the greatest single sources of conservation funding.”

AZA itself taps operating income for conservation through its Smart Source purchasing cooperative, which dedicates a portion of its revenues to Species Survival Plan® (SSP) programs, Rowland said. And many zoos and aquariums are spending more operating income on conservation—sometimes in creative ways like Zoo Boise’s boat and feeding activities.

Fees for joining the once-a-week Backstage Safari at the Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas, for instance, have raised $40,000 for conservation over the last 14 months. The Zoo expects that by conducting the Safari on Saturday and Sundays, they may be able to double that amount.

During the 90-minute tour, guests feed elephants and penguins and experience various encounters with anteaters, owls, a cheetah and other animal ambassadors. A raven has earned $10,000 for conservation this year by collecting currency at the bird show: a member of the audience is asked to stand and hold out a dollar bill. The raven flies to the guest, takes the bill in its beak, flies back to the stage, puts the bill into the trainer’s pocket, then flies a bracelet back to the guest. After the show, anyone can approach the stage and give the raven a bill.

The Dallas Zoo also supports conservation projects by selling horned lizard shirts to recognize its work to protect the Texas state reptile, operating wishing well-like coin collection machines and charging for access to a “hurricane simulator,” which Sean Greene, the Zoo’s vice president of guest experiences, described as a small room in which visitors are hit with a strong stream of air.

Like Zoo Boise, the Dallas Zoo has added an admission surcharge of 25 cents.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in the Bronx, N.Y., manages approximately 500 conservation projects in more than 60 countries, some of which are supported by zoo operating income. Since 1999, for instance, the Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit has sent more than $12 million to conservation projects in Africa, according to James Breheny, WCS’s Executive Vice President for Zoos and Aquarium.

The exhibit, at the Bronx Zoo, includes gorillas and other animals and tells about Society-funded conservation activities in Central Africa, Breheny said. Just before leaving the exhibit, visitors encounter computer touch-screens at which they can learn more about the conservation activities and pick which of the activities they would like their $5 admission fee to support.

Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., employs approximately 40 staff to conduct conservation-related research, said Lisa Faust, PhD, the Zoo’s vice president of conservation and science. About 4 percent of the Zoo’s budget supported field conservation initiatives last year, and more is devoted to other research projects, Faust said.

Lincoln Park Zoo is spending an increasing amount of operating income on conservation, Faust said, but also supports conservation with donations. Because it does not charge admission, the Zoo’s operating income is limited to such sources as food and gift shop sales, rental of Zoo facilities and special ticketed events.

The Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Ariz., last year began to build on its existing conservation fund by committing $1 from each admission and $5 from each annual membership to support the fund. That generated nearly $700,000 the first year, and Zoo officials plan to grow that to a $4 million fund over the next five years, according to Bonnie Mendoza, the Zoo’s executive vice president and chief financial officer.

To highlight its commitment to conservation, the Phoenix Zoo changed the title of its annual fundraising gala to “Rendez-Zoo: An Evening of Conservation and Cuisine” in 2010. Last year, the Zoo’s governing organization changed its name from the Arizona Zoological Society to the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation.

Enjoying a rise in attendance and income, the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas, decided to put more operating income into its Wildlife Care, Conservation and Research Fund, Texas State Aquarium President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Schmid said.

“While we continue to funnel most of the [increased income] into new programming and exhibits,” he said, “we felt we also had the opportunity to increase what we do in conservation. Our goal is to contribute at least $100,000 a year to programs out of that fund.”

AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums support conservation in a variety of ways, international and local.

Zoo Boise, for instance, funds restoration of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, which was nearly destroyed during the country’s civil war from 1977 to 1992, as well as conservation of southern Idaho ground squirrels.

At Lincoln Park Zoo, “for a long time, a lot of our initiatives were international,” Faust said. “About five years ago, we established the Urban Wildlife Institute to try to learn about what happens to animals in cities and the areas surrounding cities.” The Zoo has started programs in forest preserves around Chicago and is studying black-crowned night herons, a state-endangered species that nests near the Zoo.

The Texas State Aquarium focuses mainly on the Gulf of Mexico but is expanding into the Caribbean because “there’s a lot of interaction” between the two bodies of water, Schmid said.

Beyond considering conservation a core mission, these zoo and aquarium leaders say their actions enhance their institutions’ standing with the public. Zoo visitors appreciate the opportunity to become involved with conservation, even in a small way, and that makes them more likely to support other conservation efforts.

“If somebody asks why we are exhibiting gorillas in the Bronx Zoo, I can say we’re making people aware of conservation issues and giving people an opportunity to take action. Because of that, this group of animals is directly helping to contribute to the conservation of gorillas in the wild,” said Breheny.

The Texas State Aquarium’s support for conservation has garnered “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from visitors and donors. Visitors “are excited that were doing it,” Schmid said. Donors appreciate how the conservation activities leverage their contributions, he said.

“When someone makes a donation to build a new exhibit at the Aquarium, that causes an increase in attendance and revenue and allows us to give more money to conservation,” Schmid explained. “When you connect the dots, people realize it does make sense.”

At the Phoenix Zoo, conservation education combined with “the power of face-to-face, eye-to-eye interaction with the animals” can increase visitors’ support for protecting animals in the wild, said Ruth Allard, the Zoo’s executive vice president for conservation and education.

The Zoo’s support for orangutan conservation and the endangered status of the animals are described at the orangutan exhibit where people “can see our orangutan family, watch that family interact and think about how the orangutans are similar to their family,” Allard said.

“We hope—in conjunction with the signage at the exhibit and interaction with our volunteers and staff—those guests will have a different understanding of the world when they hear a news story about palm oil and how it has an impact [on orangutans] in Borneo.”

Tom Price is a writer based in Washington, D.C.