Zooquarium americanus, Status: Vulnerable

The economy is on everyone’s mind and unfortunately the zoo and aquarium community is not immune to the fluctuation in world markets. When people cannot anticipate the stability of their jobs and lives, they certainly don’t bring their children into zoos, enroll them for summer camps, or buy yearly memberships or make donations to privately (and publicly) funded institutions.

The Bronx Zoo is one of the first to actually release a statement about their situation, noting that softness in gifts and memberships – with no relief expected soon – and pressure on Governor Paterson to cut their funding in half this year and eliminate it next year are placing all the living museums in New York at serious risk. Unfortunately, the Bronx Zoo is absolutely not the only collection feeling the pressure.

I have many contacts across the United States and judging from personal conversations, enrollment in programs, requests for offsite appearances, and general attendance are down across the board for both tiny zoos in small coastal towns all the way up to enormous and well known parks. Worse, the gigantic stimulus package recently passed by the House makes no provisions to fill in budget gaps for zoos or aquariums placing us alongside the likes of casinos and golf courses in perceived value.

Much like the larger economy, zoos and aquariums are in for a death spiral if attendance and membership rates continue to fall without incredibly creative thinking. The situation is keenly apparent in education (which is of course where I work). Consider this: if there are no students attending your programs, you cannot make your staff budget and you have to limit staff hours or cut staff altogether. If you have no staff available, then you cannot offer programs. And if you cannot offer programs, you lose out even further in your budget compounding the existing issue. For many zoo and aquarium professionals right now the issue is a loss of hours if not actual layoffs. But hour cutbacks have an end result as well. Lost hours may not be an outright job loss, but it encourages talented people to pursue jobs in other fields. And while it may seem like there will always be a steady stream of job applicants for zoo careers the simple fact is that attracting and keeping longterm professionals with highly developed skills is not easy.

If we cannot encourage the American public to see zoos and aquariums for what they are – places for inspiration, learning, and the preservation of species (including several that are extinct in the wild like red wolves or scimitar horned oryx!) – and to take an active part in supporting them then we are going to lose our living institutions. I suppose for many people, this will not be counted as a heavy loss. But I absolutely refuse to believe that a zoo or aquarium is the cultural equivalent of a golf course or a casino and deserves to be treated as unnecessary fluff in any state or federal budget or stimulus program.

What can we do to encourage the American public to keep zoos and aquariums open? How can we continue to attract students and parents into our institutions? When we can solve these questions with creative ideas, we might just stand a chance at survival.


One Comment to “Zooquarium americanus, Status: Vulnerable”

  1. The ripple effect of the down turn (collapse) is spreading across the whole pool. No one is immune, and some things — like the zoo — get impacted in sudden and unexpected ways.