Take a trip to a zoo in any of the larger cities a half-day's drive or less from Little Rock — Memphis, Dallas or St. Louis — and you're bound to come down with a case of zoo envy. Modern exhibits, rare and exotic animals, spanking new habitats and announcements of multi-million dollar developments soon to come are often par for the course.
With so much zoological splendor within daytripping distance, it's easy to complain about the cost of admission at the Little Rock Zoo: $8 adults, $6 children, not including drinks and snacks for the entourage. Though 2007 saw those fees put to good use — a new entrance and African Veldt exhibit are in the final stages of completion, and the restored Over the Jumps carousel, once a favorite at War Memorial Amusement Park across the street, is giving rides again near the gate — trying to compare attractions-per-dollar for your entry fee at the Little Rock Zoo and other zoos seems to be strictly an apples-and-oranges exercise. Still, administrators insist, the zoo is both an asset and a bargain, especially given the population of Little Rock and the relatively small amount of taxpayer funding the zoo receives every year.
Mike Blakely has been the director of the Little Rock Zoo for eight years. He said that the Little Rock Zoo doesn't judge itself by looking at the zoos in neighboring states, but against other attractions in Central Arkansas. Comparing admission prices at the Little Rock Zoo and a larger institution like the Memphis Zoo is “unfair,” Blakely said, adding that as a non-profit, the Little Rock Zoo bases its admission price on exactly what it needs to stay open, based on attendance and local subsidies, public and private. “Certainly we look at other zoos, but it isn't what we judge our price on,” Blakely said.
Blakely said that, compared to other zoos, the Little Rock Zoo receives a relatively small portion of its operating budget from the city — about $1.3 million annually. The other $4.6 million required to keep the zoo open and expand exhibits comes from tickets, the zoo gift shop, rides, memberships and the café.
Susan Altrui is the director of marketing and development at the zoo. She said that the Little Rock Zoo is proud of the fact that only about a third of the annual budget comes from the city, and adds that admission prices there are lower than almost any other zoo in the region, save the St. Louis Zoo, which has had free admission by city edict for over 50 years. (Altrui added that even though it has proven a large revenue stream for some other zoos in the region, the Little Rock Zoo doesn't charge for parking unless there's a football game at War Memorial Stadium, which she called “rare”).
“We're going to be working toward being a self-sufficient institution. However, in doing that, it means that we have to make our money somewhere else — in our café, in the gift shop, with the train and the carousel,” Altrui said. “ The zoo is run just like any other business except we don't have a sheer profit motive. We're not trying to make budget cuts or increase prices based on a profit somebody is keeping. It's just the opposite. Any money we have here at the zoo is to offset the cost of operating the zoo.”
Last year, the zoo received the largest gift in its history, over $1 million from the Laura P. Nichols Foundation. Altrui said that the zoo is considered both a separate department in the city of Little Rock and an enterprise fund, which means that any money generated on zoo property stays at the zoo and doesn't go back to the general fund.
“That's very advantageous because it gives us some flexibility in terms of what we do with our budget,” she said, “and it also makes sure we're supporting the zoo and that money people are paying at the zoo isn't going to support the city as a whole.”
Though the Little Rock Zoo is dedicated to expansion and renovation, Altrui said it must be done responsibly. “We can't go out with a master plan and try to take over the entire park and try to make this zoo into something like the San Diego Zoo. We don't have the tax base and the population here to support that. What we have to do is create what we think is the best zoo for this area and try to raise the funds to make that happen.”
One thing that will likely have to happen in coming years is a major expansion of the popular elephant habitat. Altrui said that with changing American Zoo Association guidelines, there is “a strong possibility” that the Little Rock Zoo won't be able to keep elephants on display unless it establishes a breeding program in the next five to 10 years, which means bringing in a bull elephant and providing him enough room to “run around” while in must. That also means a new, larger habitat for the elephants — a use zoo officials have been pushing for the vacant Ray Winder Field next door.
Altrui said that while admission and concession prices at the zoo could be lower, it would only be at the expense of the zoo itself, leading to stagnation of exhibits and attractions. The future aside, Altrui said the Little Rock Zoo is a bargain, even with admissions at their current level.
“The bottom line is, it's still a great value,” she said. “For $8 for adults and $6 for kids — you can't go to a movie for that these days. You're getting a lot more entertainment when you come to the zoo.”