Over the last couple months there’s been a lot of talk about problems with the Salisbury Zoo. The mounting list includes animal deaths, on-the-job injuries to staff, a lack of parking and/or needing a new location, and environmental concerns recently documented in the local blog Justice for All?
It just made me stop and think about a philosophy of mine. Anyone can complain about a problem, but who’s going to stick their neck out and offer solutions?
In the interest of disclosure, I have lived in this area 16 months and have yet to make it into the Salisbury Zoo. I guess I’m not much of an animal buff. A zoo is a nice place for a family to go but I live by myself so it’s somewhat less incentive. Honestly, I know I can’t beat the admission price.
To write this post, I decided to do some research and comparison. Because it’s in my native city and personally I think it would be a good zoo to emulate, I used the Toledo Zoo is one basis of comparison. I also looked up the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore for their facts and figures to see how the zoo here stacks up.
Using the Maryland Zoo as a comparison is a little bit more fair to the Salisbury Zoo, particularly in a financial sense. The Toledo Zoo has one big advantage as Ohio law allowed it to go on the ballot for a property tax levy. Thus, the citizens of Lucas County (or at least the property owners) all serve as a funding source for the zoo – an 0.7 mill operating levy ($7 per $1,000 of assessed valuation) has been in place since at least 1987 and is renewable every 10 years. But this coming May the zoo is going to the voters seeking an increase to an 0.85 mill operating levy plus an additional 1 mill levy to fund their master plan. Since I’ve not heard of any such levy type here, I have to presume there’s no statute allowing it in Maryland law.
Some relevant facts and figures about each of the zoos (from their websites unless noted):
Date founded: Maryland Zoo 1876 (3rd oldest in the country), Toledo Zoo 1900, Salisbury Zoo 1954.
Number of animals: Toledo Zoo 4,500, Maryland Zoo 1,500, Salisbury Zoo 200-500 (by various estimates).
Cost of admission:
Maryland Zoo is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $10 for kids, under 2 free, parking is free; zoo is closed in January and February.
Toledo Zoo is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and kids, under 2 free, parking is $5 (free for members) with half-price admission during “Frozentoesen” in January and February.
Salisbury Zoo is free admission and parking, open year-round.
Maryland Zoo memberships are $55 individual, $59 senior, $65 individual plus, $87 grandparents, $87 family, $99 family plus – all the way up to “Pride of the Zoo” which is $1,500.
Toledo Zoo memberships are $35 individual, $45 individual plus, $50 grandparents, $60 family – their high end is “President’s Platinum Circle” for $2,500.
Salisbury Zoo memberships are $20 for students and seniors, $25 individual, $40 family, $60 deluxe family – topping out at $500 for a corporate patron membership.
Each zoo has other various ways of attempting to garner financial support. Common ones are animal sponsorships, pathway bricks/tiles, and each has some sort of party for sponsors and patrons. They all also do a Halloween-themed event.
But the two larger zoos have an “ace in the hole” that Salisbury’s seems to lack. The Toledo Zoo annually festoons itself in lights (they begin stringing them up about Labor Day) for its “Lights Before Christmas” display. It’s good for at least 100,000 visitors in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. And the Maryland Zoo relies heavily on corporate sponsorships and advertising opportunities (with “official” products, signage, ticketbacks, newsletter ads, etc.)
In reading up for this, there were a couple interesting things I found out about the Salisbury Zoo. Since it’s on a tiny site (just 12 acres) the largest animal they have is their bear. And I had no idea that Jim Rapp was such a young guy. I’m picturing a middle-age executive type and find out he became director of the zoo at the ripe old age of 25. He’s younger than me!
I sort of wonder if Jim Rapp’s lack of prior experience wasn’t the root of the current problems. Did they do a long search for a new zoo director when he was hired? Basically it seems to me like he was overwhelmed if anything. And with an $18 million upgrade master plan hanging in the balance, it may be time for some changes.
So, now that I’ve gone through the comparisons, it’s time to contribute my two cents.
To me, the best and surest way to help the zoo is to charge admission. I know the tradition is for a free zoo but in order to give itself a better revenue stream it’s necessary to start getting more than just the few dollars in the donation box. Animals aren’t cheap to feed, nor are zookeepers.
I think a fair price would be what the Ward Museum charges, which I believe is $7 for adults. That puts Salisbury at a price point that’s half of the Maryland Zoo. If you charge $3 for kids, that still means a family of four gets in for $20, and that’s not unreasonable. Memberships could be raised somewhat as well, maybe to $60 for a family and $35 for a single. On single-day tickets there could even be a “twofer” deal where $10 gets you into both the museum and zoo. Even if attendance and memberships go down by 1/3 I would think the revenues would increase.
Once the revenue stream gets set up, then the zoo can work on its facilities. It sounds like the MDE is going to have a lot to say about what goes on at the zoo but once those changes are outlined, then the Salisbury Zoo can slowly work on its master plan. I suspect an additional part of that plan would have to be some sort of levee or something to alleviate the potential flooding problems at the zoo site. But the first order of business is to stop all the animal deaths. I looked up the next accreditation date for the Salisbury Zoo and it’s in September 2009. They have 3 1/2 years to get things straightened out.
Finally, I have to say that, in order for all this to occur, it may be a time for a change at the top. Whether he was overwhelmed from the start or just a well-meaning but incompetent director, I think Jim Rapp needs to be replaced. And there’s nothing that says he can’t stay with the zoo – perhaps a more senior administrator from a successful zoo can come here as the top man and teach Jim Rapp how to do things right, then a wiser, more experienced leader could emerge.
A zoo can be a focal point of a city and a nice tourist attraction. When people asked, “what’s there to do in Toledo?” invariably the Toledo Zoo would come up. That’s not true for Baltimore, but Baltimore is a large city with multiple things to do from a tourist standpoint. As it stands now, Salisbury is basically known for being the last big town before Ocean City for the folks coming from the other shore. A nice zoo might not be the hugest tourist draw, but it’s something that can’t hurt the area. There’s no other zoo within an hour of Salisbury, so why not make it a worthwhile destination?