Business Overview

Zoos are family-friendly attractions where everyone can see their favorite animals, learn more about nature, and enjoy related entertainment. They also function as wildlife preserves of some of the most endangered species.

Who is this business right for?

Zoos are excellent for those who love animals and want to protect them from environmental dangers. The idea of the attraction is to pass a love of planet Earth down to younger generations. However, zoos can be incredibly expensive to run, meaning an owner will need to have a knack for business.

What happens during a typical day at a zoo business?

Zoos are notorious for being chaotic, so owners may have to pitch in on any or all of the following tasks:

  • Acquiring animals
  • Administering husbandry
  • Advertising
  • Managing staff
  • Planning the budget
  • Assessing sales
  • Complying with city regulations
  • Liability insurance

What is the target market?

Families are usually the largest market, but zoos are truly made for everyone. Even in a down economy, parents will always be looking for things to do with their kids, and zoos are a relatively affordable and fun activity for all.

How does a zoo business make money?

Zoos make money from both ticket sales and donations. There are plenty of wealthy benefactors that want to do their part to protect animals. Luckily, the majesty of certain species is usually enough to inspire people to give to your cause. However, most zoos are nonprofit as their mission is focused on the welfare of animals. They will often rely on city funding as well (which is unfortunately subject to change.)

What is the growth potential for a zoo business?

Most larger cities will have a zoo, which can pose some very stiff competition. However, there is room available in even the most seemingly saturated of markets. Owners who look for an animal niche or an angle that hasn’t been filled (or a forgotten part of the country) to grow their business.

Getting Started

What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful zoo business?

Those who have a history of veterinary work or a life science background can use those skills to build their success in this industry. Zoos are extremely labor intensive, so owners should have at least worked or volunteered in an existing zoo to understand exactly what they’re jumping into. Resourcefulness is often the biggest factor when it comes to how successful a zoo can be.

What are the costs involved in opening a zoo business?

The costs will all depend on what types of animals you have and the land you use. You’ll need to pay for their food and care, as well as staff to maintain the grounds and run concession stands around the park. It’s not unusual for a park to spend $10,000 to $12,000 per day (or more) just to keep up with costs, plus millions more on elaborate exhibits. That’s a tall order for anyone.

What are the steps to start a zoo business?

Once you're ready to start your zoo business, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:

  1. Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
  2. Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your zoo business is sued.
  3. Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
  4. Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your zoo business keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
  5. Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
  6. Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
  7. Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
  8. Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
  9. Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.

Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.

Where can I find a business mentor?

One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.

Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.

Recommended: offers video courses and a supportive online community of like-minded entrepreneurs. Try one month membership for for free.

What are some insider tips for jump starting a zoo business?

Most people would never consider starting a zoo because it's a lot of work without a very good chance of a reward. Few entrepreneurs could find the money (or the space) to compete with established zoos in large cities that have managed to build up decades of experience and public recognition.

And yet, there are things an owner can do differently in order to attract a public audience. For example, San Diego not only has their famous zoo, but they also have a Safari Park. In a Safari Park, the animals are all roaming on open land rather than hanging out in exhibits, and customers are given rides throughout the grounds to see animals in a slightly more natural habitat. By tweaking the format a little, the Safari Park has managed to become a hit destination alongside their incredibly impressive zoo. Residents of San Diego and business experts alike may not have been able to have predicted its success.

Those who are just getting off the ground with their zoo may want to consider something on a smaller scale. They may want to contact professionals who handle exotic animals and talk to them about the best ways to both protect them and share them with the public. Owners may want to start off with a mobile enterprise in smaller towns in order to establish themselves.

Growing Your Business

How to promote & market a zoo business

Considering families are the primary market, it may make sense to stick with children-focused advertising on television or the radio. Again, it’s pivotal for owners to find a need that isn’t being filled. For example, maybe you hire animal handlers who can tell jokes as well as inform them about the animals. Maybe you feature animals that families can’t find at a competing zoo.

Recommended: Get started with local advertising for your business with a $300 credit from Yelp.

How to keep customers coming back

Customers come to the zoo to have a good time — not to be saddened by the state of our world. Owners can work in a message of conservation without the doom and gloom. Animals need to look well cared for, cages need to be clean, grounds need to be spotless, and concessions should ideally be delicious. Visitors should feel as though there’s a sense of logic or a theme to their wanderings (e.g., grouping all of the African mammals together.)

How and when to build a team

You will need to build a team immediately. No zoo can even begin without having enough licensed vets and caretakers to administer daily feedings and to handle emergencies. Owners should hire people who have plenty of professional experience working with unusual or foreign animals. This will not only keep the animals safe, it will also lower the cost of your liability insurance (or at least, make it less likely you'll ever need to use it.)

Legal Considerations

Federal Business Licensing Requirements

It is important to abide by all federal and state regulations regarding the ownership of exotic animals. Before starting a zoo, make sure you and your business have met all licensing and ownership requirements. 

State & Local Business Licensing Requirements

Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a zoo business. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.

Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.

For information about local licenses and permits:

Certificate of Occupancy

A zoo business is generally run out of a large piece of land. Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO).  A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.

  • If you plan to lease a location:
    • It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
    • Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to a zoo business.
    • After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued.
  • If you plan to purchase or build a location:
    • You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
    • Review all building codes and zoning requirements for your business’ location to ensure your zoo business will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.

Reduce Personal Liability

Structuring your business as a limited liability company (LLC) ensures your personal assets are protected in the event your business is sued.

What is an LLC?

Form an LLC in 5 easy steps

Earning Potential

How much can you charge customers?

Zoos can charge based on their size and demand. Just one adult ticket to the San Diego Zoo is $54 for adults and $44 for children. Plus, owners can charge for a variety of experiences, including special breakfasts or animal shows. These special endeavors can easily add on an extra $30 to $50 a day without deducting very much from the overall budget.

What are the ongoing expenses for a zoo business?

Ongoing expenses include veterinary care, license renewals, ground maintenance, and staff salaries. They'll also need to add and maintain exhibits throughout the years. Successful zoo professionals will look for any excuse to save money . For example, they may use roadkill to feed their animals as long as it doesn't endanger their safety.

How much profit can a zoo business make?

While most zoos are technically non-profits, they can make enough money to generate sizable salaries. However, on the whole, zoos have been cutting back on their exhibits as of late — even as they continue to raise the price of admission. This is due to inordinately high bills and cuts in city or donor funding.

How can you make your business more profitable?

Zoos have been steadily adding attractions like water slides or other types of rides for their patrons. These attractions are not only fun, they also allow owners to raise the cost of admission without threatening ticket sales.

Next Steps

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