What do you do with a homeless peacock? Zookeepers had to deal with such problems when the Petting Zoo in Manhattan's Central Park closed last year because of New York City's budget problems. Most of the petting zoo's inhabitants found new homes with local families. Fortunately for both zoo animals and the children who visit them, many cities are privatizing their zoos rather than letting the gates close for good.
Cities with private zoos include Fort Worth, New Orleans, Cincinnati, San Diego, Knoxville, and Jackson, Mississippi. Many others—among them, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Birmingham, Alabama—are considering privatization because of budgetary problems.
Some zoos develop co-management/ownership arrangements between government officials and private, nonprofit zoological societies. Dual administration has its pitfalls, though: The much-publicized power struggles between the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association and the L. A. Recreation and Parks Commission resulted in the resignation last November of the association's president, Bruce Nasby, who had raised paid association memberships from 80,000 to some 135,000 during his 3½-year tenure. The lion's share of the responsibility for running the L.A. Zoo has returned to the city government.
The Philadelphia Zoo, private since it opened in 1874, is frequently lauded as an example for other cities. The Zoological Society of Philadelphia augments the $10 million generated by admission and membership fees with corporate sponsorships and fund-raising activities such as the "Run Wild at the Zoo" 10K road race, the Ben Franklin Look-Alike Contest, and the annual Zoobilee! party. The zoo's 1991 budget topped $14 million—not a penny of it from government coffers.
The United States isn't the only country with private zoos. Forced to kill their goats and cows so the carnivores wouldn't starve, officials in Buenos Aires decided to turn their century-old zoo over to a private owner last year. With private capital and admission revenue, the zoo was able to acquire over 800 new animals in a matter of months.
Director Juan Romero summed up the secret of his success in The San Diego Union: "It is faster to obtain money as a private organization. As a state operation, it would take two years to get new uniforms for the caretakers; now we have one meeting and we get what we need."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Animal Pragmatism".