Zoo visitors becoming an endangered species

The number of visitors to the cash-strapped San Francisco Zoo dropped again this year, continuing a decline seen since a 2007 peak.

Zoo officials reported a 10 percent admission decrease this summer compared to the prior year, with 18,000 fewer visitors in July alone. Possible causes include the abnormally cold and wet summer weather and the slow economy, zoo spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said.

“As you know, this has been a pretty bad weather year,” LaMarca said. “We hope that the new norm is that flat is growth.”

Attendance has been declining, however, since 2007, which saw record-breaking crowds of 1.1 million drawn to the opening of the Grizzly Gulch exhibit. That year ended with a fatal Christmas Day incident in which an escaped tiger killed one patron and mauled two others.

Attendance fell to 965,296 in 2008 and 897,000 in 2009, dropping below budget projections and forcing cuts, since general admission accounts for about one-third of zoo revenue. This year, zoo officials projected for about 865,000 visitors in the budget, but almost every month has been a struggle.

Meanwhile, in the past four year the Oakland Zoo has seen a 25 percent increase in admission, spokeswoman Nancy Filippi said.

Former Recreation and Park Commission member and zoo committee member Michael Sullivan, who’s awaiting word on reappointment, said it’s time to deal with the situation.

“I think there could be a chronic problem with attendance that needs to be addressed,” Sullivan said. “I really don’t know what’s causing it. About the weather being this way or that, it’s not like that’s a long-term reason.”

In 2008, San Francisco Zoo officials raised ticket prices by $3 for San Francisco residents to make up for the shortfall in admission. General admission is $15 for adults and $9 for children under 14. Admission for San Francisco residents is $12 for adults and $5.50 for children.

By 2010, the zoo was facing a nearly $3 million deficit, owed The City an additional $2 million for services and carried financial burdens related to the Christmas Day 2007 mauling.

To address the shortage, the zoo has cut back hours, asked 18 staffers to take early retirement and ended an annual holiday ice-rink exhibit with Santa Claus and his reindeer.

“When you go back and just look at the zoo for the past three or four years, we have very much tightened our belts,” LaMarca said. “You make adjustments.”

The zoo is developing a master plan that will list priorities and how to increase revenue, she said.

Patron counts dwindle

1.1 million: Number of visitors in 2007
965,000:
Number of visitors in 2008
896,859:
Number of visitors in 2009
865,000: Number of visitors projected for 2010

Breakdown of revenue

Events: 5 percent
Parking: 4 percent
Education:
3 percent
Board giving: 3 percent
Admissions: 33 percent
Management fee: 24 percent
Membership: 12 percent
Retail commission: 6 percent
Retail revenue: 5 percent
Contributions: 5 percent

Source: SF Zoo

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

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