How Does the Zoo Stay Free?
Your Support Fuels Lincoln Park Zoo
Why is there no charge? How’s the zoo funded?
How does Lincoln Park Zoo stay free? Well, it isn’t easy! It costs $62,000 a day just to cover everything that goes into keeping the zoo free and open to everyone 365 days a year.
What’s in that total? Everything from keeping the lights on to ensuring harbor seals have their daily herring at the Kovler Sea Lion Pool. The C.H. “Doc” Searle, M.D. Animal Hospital and conservation programs in Africa are included in that sum. Likewise boomer balls and tulip bulbs, great ape puzzle feeders and field trip packets for more than 100,000 students every year.
So where does the money come from? Basically, it can be broken down into three pools.
1. Your Support
Lincoln Park Zoo’s generous members and donors actually make up the largest portion of the funding pool. Last year your combined contributions added up to nearly $9 million, 40 percent of the zoo’s roughly $22 million budget.
People’s motivations for supporting Chicago’s free zoo are as diverse as the supporters themselves. Some are motivated by the zoo’s commitment to education or conservation. Last summer two pre-teen donors, Deven and Ava, famously contributed the proceeds from their lemonade stand to support the zoo-led Serengeti Health Initiative, a project they’d read about on the zoo website.
Most donors, though, grew up visiting Lincoln Park Zoo and give today to ensure it remains free and open for future generations to enjoy. As Conservators’ Council member Brittany Smith shares, “The fact that it’s free to the public is important to us, and we want to help maintain that.”
2. Zoo Sales
Have you ever grabbed lunch at Park Place Café or taken a ride on the AT&T Endangered Species Carousel? Picked up a ticket for Jammin’ at the Zoo, a souvenir from the Wild Things Gift Shop or even the parking tab after an all-day visit? If so, thank you, because you were supporting Lincoln Park Zoo.
These kinds of earned revenue—snacks, souvenirs, tickets, rides and more—add up to nearly $8 million a year, or 35 percent of the zoo’s operating budget. (That’s a whole lot of spins around the carousel.)
Unsurprisingly, visitor support changes with the seasons, surging in summer when zoo grounds are packed with guests and thinning out in January and February after the off switch is thrown for ZooLights Presented by ComEd and PNC Bank. The weather can play a big role as well; stormy springs and sweltering summers can discourage people from seeing what’s new at the zoo.
Regardless of the weather, the zoo’s event planners are always trying to find new ways to entice visitors. “We want to keep the guest experience fresh,” says Senior Director of Guest Services Erika Kohler. “We saw that this summer with new events like Salsa at the Zoo Presented by MyHabanero.com or Locally Sourced at the Patio. We’ll see it this winter too with the first season of Ice Skating at Lincoln Park Zoo.”
All these programs add fun to the zoo experience…and keep Lincoln Park Zoo free for everyone. So if you’re ever considering one more ride on the LPZoo Children’s Train, take our advice—go for it!
3. The Chicago Park District
Lincoln Park Zoo was run by the Chicago park system for much of its 145-year history. Founded by the Lincoln Park Commission in 1868 and later folded into the Chicago Park District, the zoo employed city workers and relied on city funds for buildings, upkeep and animal care.
In 1995, the zoo reorganized, moving under the private management of The Lincoln Park Zoological Society, an independent body that had been founded in 1959 to improve and support the zoo. As part of the ultimate public-private partnership, the Park District agreed to provide the zoo a fixed subsidy every year going forward: $5.5 million, plus some utility services.
“The arrangement has benefitted the zoo and the City of Chicago,” says President and CEO Kevin Bell. “But because it’s fixed, it stays the same while our costs keep going up.”
The proof is in the numbers: The Park District support made up 46 percent of the budget in 1995 but only covered 25 percent last year. As a result, it’s necessary for us to raise more and more of the budget—which we have, with your help. So thank you for keeping Lincoln Park Zoo free!
By James Seidler • Published January 15, 2014 • Originally published in Winter 2013 Lincoln Park Zoo magazine
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