Private Enterprise

How To Save America's Zoos: Privatize Them

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In nature, rare and endangered animals fight for their lives against poachers and predators. In publicly owned zoos, they face different but no-less lethal dangers: politics and budget woes. That problem will only get worse as local governments come to terms with decades of out-of-control spending and declining tax revenues.

For six years straight, notes Leonard Gilroy, the Reason Foundation's director of government reform, cities have seen declines in overall revenues—and that situation isn't expected improve dramatically anytime soon. In such an environment, says Gilroy, city governments rightly focus on core activities such as law enforcement and infrastructure. Given that public zoos on average get 40 percent of their budgets from taxes, shrinking public dollars means reducing operating hours, deferring maintenance, raising ticket prices, cutting education programs, and laying off workers.

The best solution? Privatize the zoos by turning over most or all of their operations to nonprofits and other groups that generally have more interest, resources, and expertise in caring for animals and drawing crowds. Tulsa, Oklahoma provides a case worth looking at. Between 2007 and 2009 the operating budget of the Tulsa Zoo had been cut by almost 50%. During a budget crisis in 2009, newly elected Mayor Dewey Bartlett faced a zoo with declining attendance and ticket sales; it was also about to lose its accreditation. One option would have been to simply close the zoo and sell off the animals. Bartlett decided instead to draw down the city's subsidy of the zoo's annual budget to a management fee and turn over its operation to a nonprofit that would be responsible for all aspects of the zoo.

The shift has allowed the nonprofit Tulsa Zoo Management to raise more money, make overdue improvements to exhibits, and focus on providing a better experience not just for the animals but the increasing number of human visitors walking through the entrance gate. Despite the rotten economy, attendance is up 14 percent from last year alone, says Tulsa Zoo Management CEO Terrie Correll.

As city-owned or operated zoos in every city from Los Angeles to New York struggle to keep their doors open, they would do well to look at the way that Tulsa has managed to craft a solution that's better for taxpayers, zoo visitors, and even the animals themselves.

About 5 minutes.

Produced by Sharif Matar.

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