How to Start a Zoo in 14 Steps (In-Depth Guide)

Updated: February 22, 2024

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The U.S. zoo and aquarium industry was valued at nearly $3.1 billion in 2023. It grew at a compound annual growth rate of 3.5% from 2017 to 2023 and continues an upward trajectory. For newcomers to the animal-keeping world, this is good news.

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Opening your zoo or aquarium can be rewarding, allowing you to educate the public while working closely with exotic animals. However, significant financial investment and planning are required to build facilities and obtain animals.

This guide will walk you through how to start a zoo. Topics include market research, competitive analysis, registering an EIN, obtaining business insurance, forming a legal business entity, and other important elements.

1. Conduct Zoo Market Research

Market research is essential to those hoping to start a zoo business plan. Research offers insight into your target market, the Animal Welfare Act, sources to equip a petting zoo, and trends among services in the zoo industry.

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Some of the details you’ll learn through local petting zoo research include:

  • While the market is mature with established major players, specialized niches remain for newcomers.
  • Focusing on unique exhibits, animal conservation efforts, or educational programs can help you stand out.
  • Continued pent-up demand, relaxing restrictions, reopening international travel, and rising consumer confidence point to a healthy market.
  • Site selection plays a crucial role in the feasibility of a new zoo endeavor.
  • Factors like demographics, income levels, existing local attractions, transportation access, land availability, and zoning requirements must be evaluated thoroughly.
  • Prime locations are often found clustered near major cities and tourist hubs.
  • Startup costs pose the most significant barrier, with modern zoos requiring upwards of $150 million or more in upfront investment.
  • Real estate, construction, enclosures, landscaping, signage, utilities, maintenance facilities, and professional fees quickly add up.
  • Phased openings can spread costs over time as revenue starts compensating.
  • Operational expenses are also demanding, typically exceeding $1 million annually for smaller zoos and ranging into the 10s of millions for larger establishments.
  • Animal acquisition and care, staff salaries, regulatory costs, insurance, marketing, and facilities upkeep represent major recurring costs.

While competitive, the zoo industry continues exhibiting strong performance and steady growth amid rebounding tourism demand. Carving out a specialized niche and securing prime location and startup funding offer keys to tapping into sizable market opportunities globally and particularly across thriving North American metropolitan regions.

2. Analyze the Competition

Carefully evaluating your existing zoo competition represents a critical step before endeavoring to open a new zoo. This analysis should assess local brick-and-mortar zoos and aquariums that visitors can physically access and the online presence of major players in the wider market.

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Some ways to get to know local competition like the San Diego Zoo and smaller local competitors include:

  • Identify all nearby zoos and aquarium attractions within at least a 60 to 100-mile radius.
  • Gather key details like ticket prices, annual visitor numbers, exhibits/offerings, space size, amenities, reviews/ratings, and any unique special features.
  • Assess the target demographics and overall brand positioning.
  • Evaluate online websites and social media channels for the top 20 largest zoos globally based on visitor traffic and revenue.
  • Analyze factors like website design and user experience, follower counts across social platforms, customer engagement levels, online visitor resources, and integration of technology like virtual reality or live cams.
  • Such digital presence can significantly impact brand reach, customer acquisition, and overall visitor experience.

New zoo ventures should thoroughly analyze key details of local brick-and-mortar competitors and also evaluate the digital presence and offerings of top zoos globally. This helps position a new entrant to create a differentiated brand and visitor experience within the increasingly competitive market.

3. Costs to Start a Zoo Business

Launching a zoo requires extensive upfront investment to construct facilities, acquire animals, and meet regulatory requirements before opening. These start-up costs typically exceed $150 million for a modest zoo with a few major exhibits.

Start-up Costs

  • Land acquisition itself can run $5-10 million for a minimum 20-acre parcel located with good access and growth potential. Prime real estate near major highways or metropolitan areas will range even higher.
  • Basic enclosures average $2-4 million each depending on size and species housed.
  • Elaborate immersive habitats can reach up to $50 million.
  • Mammals like lions, tigers, or, pandas can demand $100,000-1 million per animal depending on connections, pedigree, and rarity.
  • Acquisition and transport of initial animal collections typically exceed $5 million minimum.
  • Salaries, benefits, recruiting fees, and training for specialists like veterinarians, zoologists, educators plus seasonal staff will require around $1.5 million annually.
  • Extensive legal, consulting, and engineering fees ranging from $500,000 to $5 million should also be budgeted.
  • Necessary permits, licenses, and insurance premiums can cost several hundred thousand dollars.
  • Pre-launch marketing campaigns to promote the new attraction may require $1-2 million as well.

Altogether, start-up costs for even a small localized zoo often reach well over $150 million. Larger regional zoos boast investments exceeding $500 million.

Ongoing Costs

  • Animal food, supplements, and medical care can reach $500,000 annually.
  • General facilities upkeep and landscaping materials average around $250,000 per year.
  • Heating/cooling, waste removal, security, and insurance expenses can easily exceed $1 million annually.
  • Payroll across 150+ employees may land between $5-10 million depending on staffing levels.
  • Consumable educational/gift shop inventory often ranges around $100,000.
  • Ongoing marketing and advertising campaigns average $500,000 to $1 million annually.

While extremely capital-intensive upfront, zoos capable of attracting 500,000 annual visitors can realize strong ongoing revenue streams between admissions, shows/tours, restaurants, event rentals, and merchandise sales. However, operating costs also remain demanding given elaborate facilities and animal care needs.

4. Form a Legal Business Entity

When establishing a zoo business, the legal structure carrying the least personal liability exposure is a limited liability company (LLC). This protects your assets if the business faces lawsuits or bankruptcy.

Sole Proprietorship

A sole proprietorship is an entity formation designed for a single business owner or a husband and wife who own a business together. A sole proprietorship provides no liability protection and exposes your house, cars, and investments to potential seizure.

Partnership

Partnerships also typically create unlimited, shared liability among the founding partners. Partnerships are best suited to family companies shared among members. Given the high risks of a zoo endeavor involving dangerous animals, these structures remain far from ideal.

Corporation

A corporation better shields your assets from business liabilities thanks to the separate legal entity status. However, the extensive corporate formalities, annual meetings, director duties, double taxation on profits, and payroll make maintenance more complicated and costly than an LLC.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)

An LLC provides the personal asset protection and tax conveniences of a corporation without the extensive formalities and paperwork. Profits and losses flow through to the owners’ tax returns, avoiding double taxation.

5. Register Your Business For Taxes

An Employer Identification Number (EIN) serves as a unique tax ID number for any business entity, similar to a Social Security Number for an individual. The IRS requires all businesses, even sole proprietors, to obtain an EIN for tax administration purposes. This applies to a Zoo LLC entity as well.

Applying online for an EIN is free, quick, and easy following a few simple steps:

First, navigate to the IRS EIN Assistant. This will walk you through a series of short questions about the business structure and activities to determine eligibility.

Next, you will need to disclose responsible party information for the zoo business such as names, addresses, and Social Security Numbers. This verifies identity to issue the EIN.

After submitting the information, an EIN will be assigned immediately on the following page. This page should be printed for the business records showing the EIN and effective date.

The EIN must then be shared with the state taxation agency to facilitate sales tax reporting, which varies by location. Some states require additional business permits tied to the EIN with minor fees. However, federal EIN assignment through the IRS remains free.

Obtaining an EIN is crucial to legitimize the business structure, facilitate taxation, and hire employees. Reliable record-keeping and tax reporting also help evidence the responsibility necessary to maintain licenses and permits fundamental to operating zoos long-term.

6. Setup Your Accounting

Careful financial record-keeping represents a critical success factor for a highly regulated, low-margin zoo business. Detailed tracking of revenues and expenses enables data-driven decisions while avoiding painful IRS penalties down the road.

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Accounting Software

Accounting software like QuickBooks seamlessly syncs with bank/credit card accounts to automatically download and categorize transactions. Powerful reporting provides real-time profitability insights to guide pricing, new exhibits, and staffing needs toward profitability. QuickBooks software pays for itself through massive time savings and prudent financial leadership.

Hire an Accountant

Hiring an accountant remains wise as well, despite some $150/hour costs. They are set up and set up your accounting system initially to ensure seamless financial statements and tax preparation down the road. Year-end support for compiling tax documentation can run $1,000-$5,000 but pales compared to non-compliance fines. Audits also prove far less stressful with reliable records.

Open a Business Bank Account

Never mingling zoo business accounts and your finances proves vital. Beyond muddying tax liability, you risk asset seizures if the zoo faces lawsuits or bankruptcy. Always maintain a separate business bank account and credit card solely for zoo operations.

Apply for a Business Credit Card

Applying for a small business credit card generally requires your company’s legal formation documents, 2 years of personal tax returns, and a personal guarantor. Credit limits normally equal 30% of your annual personal income. Responsible use builds invaluable credit history to enable loans down the road.

7. Obtain Licenses and Permits

Embarking on opening a zoo without federal zoo licenses results in hefty fines or outright shutdown before ever welcoming first visitors. Find federal license information through the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBA also offers a local search tool for state and city requirements.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation represents the gold standard seal of approval recognizing welfare policies to protect animals, veterinary programs, conservation efforts, and community education to meet industry benchmarks. The rigorous application can take years involving detailed on-site reviews before earning accreditation.

All states mandate general business operating licenses following the submission of articles of incorporation, fees, and intended activities declarations. These regulate commercial activities locally but lack specific wildlife oversight.

USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection (APHIS) service permits remain mandatory for public wildlife exhibitions nationally. Applications detail veterinarian qualifications, enclosure safety protocols, nutrition plans, and emergency procedures ensuring humane, ethical treatment. Annual reviews also enforce standards.

Access to top-tier zoo species involves imports/loans navigating Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) regulations alongside US Fish & Wildlife and foreign agencies. Permit applications elaborate on proven conservation commitment and suitable habitats before certain exotic transfers are authorized.

Note municipal land use and zoning laws also dictate permissible property uses conditional to impact assessments and community input. Constructing new structures triggers planning applications. Pre-established nature parklands streamline buildout.

Regulatory bodies at federal, state, and local levels each play important oversight roles granting legal operating permissions only once extensive policy documentation demonstrates an establishment meeting rigorous animal welfare and ethics standards expected of accredited zoological institutions.

8. Get Business Insurance

Operating a zoo without proper insurance coverage represents an extremely high financial risk proposition given substantial exposures across properties, employees, and dangerous animals. Just one serious incident could permanently close the doors without adequate protection.

General liability coverage protects against visitor injury lawsuits, providing legal defense and potential settlement funds which easily reach seven figures. All assets stand vulnerable without this shield.

Not ensuring specialized buildings and enclosed exhibits likely representing eight figure eight-figure investments leaves catastrophic hurricane, fire, or flood damage completely unprotected. This sinks all hopes of rebuilding.

Workers’ compensation is legally required in virtually all states, with six-figure violation fines. Lack of this coverage won’t excuse failing to cover employee injuries or rehabilitation.

Initiating coverage requires selecting an insurance brokerage specialist with experience protecting zoos, aquariums, and animal exposures. They competitively source tailored policies from niche providers suited to risks.

Next,t you must complete detailed applications listing locations, species housed, visitor capacity, safety protocols, veterinarian qualifications, and past liability claims if any. Enclosure schematics and property appraisals help firms properly gauge assets for coverage.

Underwriters will utilize this data along with credit reports, inspection tours, and Investigative research to develop initial annual premium quotes across necessary policy types. Expect rates over $100,000 for robust protection given substantial risks.

9. Create an Office Space

An administrative office space proves essential for managing extensive licensing documentation, animal acquisition logistics, employee oversight, marketing campaigns, and technology systems vital for operating a zoo. Makeshift home offices quickly become overwhelmed.

On-Site Office

An on-site office is one of the most advantageous office types when you own your own zoo business. It lets you stay on the grounds, monitoring animals, guests, and staff, while still having a private space for administration.

Coworking Office

A WeWork flexible coworking space provides a turnkey office solution with receptionist services, conference rooms, printing/scanning, WiFi, coffee, and front desk staff. However, with limited private offices, distractions abound, and rental rates span $500-$800 monthly.

Commercial Office

Commercial office spaces within business parks allow customized build-outs from 5,000 SF to support large teams. Private offices, conference rooms, emergency generators, large parking lots, and operational security all prove standardized. Lease terms usually run 3-5 years with monthly rents from $3-$8 PSF.

10. Source Your Equipment

Launching a zoo demands extensive infrastructure from protective fencing, to water treatment systems, to administrative vehicles capable of transporting staff across expansive grounds. Both new and used equipment should be explored during buildout.

Buy New

Purchasing materials like lumber, pipes, and landscaping products now is easiest through major hardware stores like Home Depot and construction suppliers that offer steep bulk order discounts given the scale of zoo projects. Having employees or volunteers help build basic structures reins in labor costs.

Buy Used

Specialized equipment like commercial kitchen gear, ticketing kiosks, or utility vehicles proves more affordable when sourced from auction sites like AuctionTime or directly from other zoos conducting renovations. Attending industry conventions facilitates networking for these hand-me-down deals.

Zoological Architects

The most expensive bespoke habitats and enclosures containing complex life support systems, viewing windows, and more Henri, and cement toys necessitate collaborating directly with zoological architects and exclusive wildlife manufacturers. This expertise is mandatory to safely house exotic species though premium costs apply even on “used” enclosures.

Lease

Leasing options also exist for more costly and maintenance-intensive gear like transport vehicles and heavy machinery. This inserts a third party to handle repairs and eventual equipment turnover allowing staff to instead focus on zoo operations.

11. Establish Your Brand Assets

Crafting a compelling brand identity and assets proves fundamental to attracting visitors in a competitive zoo landscape. From logos to web domains to signage, each component requires thoughtful assembly to convey reputability and build awareness.

Design a Logo

An eye-catching logo serves as the cornerstone of any impactful brand. Custom designs from Looka start at just $20, allowing you to select from various conceptual sketches until landing on an ideal symbol and stylized name mark representing your zoo. Bold signature colors and sleek graphics make a logo instantly recognizable across markets.

Get a Domain Name

Securing an intuitive web domain builds on this identity online. Leading registrar Namecheap offers domains from $8 annually, also bundling reliable web hosting services to launch sites quickly. A “.com” domain proves universally recognizable to visitors.

Design a Website

Building a custom website via user-friendly Wix templates allows for bringing brand vision to life digitally. Their ADI technology asks questions before delivering tailored site formats to suit your priorities. Hire a freelancer through Fiverr, if you’re not tech tech-savvy.

Print Business Cards

Distributing professional business cards reinforces credibility during community outreach and vendor negotiations. Vistaprint provides cost-effective card printing bundled with eye-catching zoo signage for facility wayfinding or ticketing uses starting at just $10.

Get a Business Phone Number

A unique phone number furnished by leading VoIP provider RingCentral buttons down reliable communications across staff and locations while accepting ticket sales queries, cementing a professional operation. Call forwarding to cell phones ensures no missed opportunities.

12. Join Associations and Groups

Joining regional zoo alliances, routinely attending industry gatherings, and participating in niche social media groups all provide invaluable opportunities to continually educate, network, and benchmark with fellow professionals navigating similar challenges.

Local Associations

The World Association for Zoos and Aquariums network covers global zoos, uniting animal care experts for knowledge sharing along with collaborative conservation initiatives and marketing. The Zoological Association of America is another good organization to join. Joining the nearest chapter bolsters community standing while tapping specialized advice.

Local Meetups

Meetup proves ideal for sourcing inspiring lectures, seminars, conferences, and conventions centralized for the zoo/aquarium field. Users can browse upcoming events by proximity and topical focus to discover targeted networking and skills growth prospects – all fundamental to tackling the learning curve facing any new zoo operator.

Facebook Groups

Facebook also contains various niche communities ideal for ongoing discussion from veterinarians and biologists collaborating on enrichment ideas to admins troubleshooting admissions systems or curators debating species acquisition. Among the most popular groups are World Zoo Keepers and Petting Zoo Owners And Friends.

13. How to Market a Zoo Business

Implementing multifaceted marketing across digital and traditional channels represents a modern imperative for zoos to drive traffic amid fierce competition for leisure time and entertainment budgets. While costly, thoughtfully prioritizing initiatives generating the strongest visitor conversions and engagement pays sustainable dividends.

Word of Mouth Marketing

Satisfied visitors organically sharing firsthand stories still reign supreme over any traditional advertisements. Offering loyalty perks like annual membership discounts, exclusive animal encounters or concession vouchers helps entice brand advocacy and referrals.

Digital Marketing

Digital platforms provide essential venues to directly inspire potential guests. Google Ads allow targeted messaging to nearby demographics most likely to visit. Facebook’s robust analysis illuminates ideal audiences to reach via feed ads, stories, or video posts. Email collection onsite also enables valuable newsletters, deals, and event notifications to subscribers.

  • Google Ads – Hyper-targeted promotions to local regions
  • Facebook/Instagram ads & posts – Social feeds and Stories highly visible
  • Email collection onsite – Frequent newsletters sent to subscribers
  • Search optimization – Improving site content to lift rankings

Traditional Marketing

Meanwhile, traditional options like highway billboards, radio spot ads, flyer distributions, and local sponsorships maintain relevance for certain demographics. The splashy atmosphere of zoos aligns well with this medium with compelling animal imagery apt to stop scrolling radio listeners and highway drivers.

  • Highway billboards – Heavy commuter traffic visibility
  • Radio ads – Frequent audio spots reach mass audiences
  • Flyer distributions – Introductions to new neighborhoods
  • Local events sponsorships – Family venue draws zoo interest

In summary, savvy marketers employ digital means to precisely target key segments while leveraging conventional outlets offering sheer breadth like highway ads exposing the zoo to entirely new passersby. Allocating test budgets to contrast options is key to determining ROI potential.

14. Focus on the Customer

Providing an exceptional visitor experience represents the most vital yet overlooked priority for any zoo operator. While elaborate habitats and rare species may attract initial interest, word-of-mouth referrals stemming from personalized interactions and memorable encounters are what truly build loyalty to become repeat patrons.

Exceeding expectations starts with friendly ticketing associates efficiently welcoming guests rather than long queues frustrating families before even entering. This positive energy must pervade across grounds via attentive exhibit guides sharing insightful commentary, food service workers catering to children and diligent custodians maintaining pristine restroom cleanliness.

Even a brief animal meet-and-greet educator or birthday announcement from Safari Sam the giraffe mascot can truly personalize a visit. Visitor surveys also help zoos continually refine offerings based on feedback to demonstrate a tech-savvy engineering tech-savvy engine commitment to add value.

An experiential-driven industry like the zoo market competes heavily on discretionary leisure time and budgets. Enthralling visitors consistently through authentic and meaningful engagement pays big time. As fans rave to friends and plaster 5-star reviews on social media your zoo following will grow, making customer service invaluable.

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