No matter how or why people make their way to the Zoo, they all find themselves in the midst of one of the most unique and challenging business models around. The Little Rock Zoo is no different. It sits at the intersection of education and entertainment, at once a tool for conservation and an invaluable local attraction. Part retail, part restaurant, part global species management project – the Zoo wears a lot of hats. Keeping the animals healthy and the visitors happy is no mean feat, and it all depends on a carefully run combination of people and resources working behind the scenes every day.
Little Rock Zoo Director Susan Altrui explains that, “The Zoo is a department of the City of Little Rock, so we are owned and operated by the city. As such, we are a little bit more unique than other departments, because we are revenue-earning.”
Over half of the Zoo’s approximately $7 million budget comes from gate admissions, special event tickets, concessions, memberships, gift shop purchases and other sales. To supplement this, the Zoo also depends on the Arkansas Zoological Foundation, a 501c(3) nonprofit. The AZF raises money primarily through special events, securing sponsorships and gathering donations. The upfront investment and continued support of the AZF allows the Zoo to put on events like GloWILD, which has become a major source of annual fundraising in just two years. In the case of GloWILD, the AZF partners with Tianyu Arts & Culture to turn the Zoo into a nightly array of lantern displays during the holiday season. The AZF secures sponsors for the different displays and splits the ticket sales with Tianyu, while the Zoo maintains any revenue from things like concessions and gift shop sales.
“We’re always trying to bring in more revenue and donations,” Altrui adds, “because that means we can increase our footprint across Little Rock and across the state.”
In 2021, the Little Rock Zoo commissioned a study from the company Zoo Advisors (now Canopy Strategic Partners). That study summarizes the economic impact and activity that the Zoo has generated and will generate from 2015-2030 as it continues to invest in upgrades.
It should come as no shock that the Zoo contributes heavily to the Little Rock economy when it comes to tourism and job creation, but even the company performing the study was “pleasantly surprised” at just how big the Zoo’s impact is, according to Altrui.
“Zoos are one of the few attractions that families will travel to. When that happens, there’s a lot of economic activity that gets tagged onto that – eating at restaurants, staying at hotels, getting gas to fill up their vehicle and travel back home. There’s all that ancillary economic activity that happens as a result of their trip to the Zoo.”
The Zoo creates or contributes to thousands of jobs in Central Arkansas and brings in hundreds of thousands of tourism dollars annually. According to the study, each visitor to the Zoo in 2019 generated about $120 in non-Zoo spending during their trip. The study also found that the Zoo’s current economic impact is close to $35 million annually. In looking towards the future of the Zoo, Canopy Strategic Partners (then Zoo Advisors) found that with an investment in capital projects over the next 15 years of $50 million, Little Rock could see an economic return to the tune of $400 million in economic impact and $600 million in total economic activity.
“We know that the Zoo is a really important economic driver for the Central Arkansas area, and for Little Rock in particular,” Altrui says. “The more that we continue to invest in upgrades to the Zoo – we know that’s going to attract even more people and more economic activity, creating even more jobs for this area.”
As far as what those upgrades look like, “It’s all about experience,” she says. Increasing the interactions visitors and families have while they’re at the Zoo – and investing in the staff resources to create those interactions – is a vital part of the plan.
Also in the works are upgrades to the Zoo’s aging infrastructure. Many of the Zoo’s buildings were constructed in the 1930s, and “We really need to tear down some of the older buildings in order to build new things,” Altrui says. “We’ve been working with architects on a design for what the Zoo will look like in the future, to give the public a view of how exciting the Zoo is going to be with that reinvestment. We’ve got a lot of exciting things coming.”
Of course, just how successful all of that reinvestment is also depends on having the personnel to back it up. The day-to-day functioning of the Zoo comes down to an army of highly skilled full- and part-time staff.
The Zoo has over 40 full- and part-time keepers, senior keepers and curators. Each keeper is assigned to a specific area, like carnivores or primates. Little Rock Zoo Assistant Director and General Curator Fran Lyon details the average daily routine for those in the animal department:
“They get here at 7:30 in the morning. They feed and clean animals, clean exhibits, do their keeper chats and have appointments with the veterinarian. At the end of the day, they bring their animals back in, feed them and either let them out or keep them in for the evening, depending on what the temperatures are. It may sound quick, simple and easy, but it’s not quick, simple and easy.”
Lyon explains that because the Little Rock Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums – and the only AZA-accredited zoo in Arkansas – it must meet a higher standard than other institutions. Beyond just cleaning and feeding, the Zoo must provide an enriching environment for the animals in its care. Zoo staff also train the animals to make veterinary care easier for everyone involved.
“We like the animals to give us at least quarterly weights, so they’ll have to step on a scale and stand there until the scale is read,” Lyon says. “For our great apes, we have a swing that’s attached to a scale, and we get them to go on the swing and sit there while we read the numbers. With other species, they’ll get into a crate, and the crate will be moved onto the scale.”
Injection training is also a key responsibility. “You’d be amazed at how many animals will stand and wait to get blood taken,” Lyon says. Training animals to react calmly to shots means there’s less of a chance the animal will need to be darted when there’s a need to sedate them for physical exams. From safely capturing an exotic bird to coaxing a small primate out of hiding for a vet visit when it doesn’t feel well – there are countless skills needed to work with the variety of animals the Zoo houses.
Once an animal is sedated, captured or otherwise ready for a checkup, the job doesn’t get any easier. The Zoo has a full-time veterinarian and certified veterinary technician. A zoo veterinarian has to be specialized in hundreds of animals, so the Zoo has also recently started a yearlong internship program in which certified veterinary interns can gain vital experience working with different wildlife.
Lyon emphasizes that, “Zookeeping is a profession. It’s not just cleaning up after an animal. There are all these things we look at, and all these things that our staff can tell you about their individual animals. It’s not just about the group or the family. It’s about the individuals and how good their care, welfare and management is on a daily basis.”
Everything the Zoo does with its animals is recorded so that keepers and curators have data-driven expectations for each animal. An important aspect of that monitoring is understanding how stress affects different animals, especially given the amount of special events the Zoo puts on. If an animal doesn’t react well to the noise or other stimuli, the keepers are careful to make sure that that animal gets locked in safely, away from all the after-hours commotion.
Another place that all of that data comes in handy is in following an animal’s Species Survival Plan, or SSP. SSP programs are designed to manage and conserve stable populations of animals considered threatened or endangered. Experts from across the country and even the world look at genetics, medical records and behavior before making recommendations.
For the Little Rock Zoo, the most recent SSP success looks like three new Malayan tiger cubs, courtesy of the Zoo’s female, Asmara, and a male, Jaya, from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Malayan tigers are one of the most critically endangered animals in the world, with less than 200 estimated to be living in the wild, so the three new cubs are a positive development for the conservation of the species.
“There was a lot of thought that went into how we introduced Jaya and Asmara,” Altrui says. “You can’t always predict it, but you can make sure that it’s done safely and in the best interest of both animals.”
But the Zoo is not just in the business of setting up dates. There are also flocks of visitors and an ever-growing list of maintenance needs to attend to. That’s where two other departments – facilities and guest services – come in.
“The animal department isn’t successful without a really great facilities operations department,” Altrui says. “Those two departments really go hand-in-hand.”
Asmara and her cubs also illustrate the need for a quality facilities team. After being born, the cubs stay inside with mom for several months before they venture out for the first time. The facilities department was called upon to construct an indoor den where mom and cubs can all stay comfortably for that extended period.
Not very often does a job require someone to pivot from tiger housing to checking out leaky pipes and changing old light bulbs. The Zoo relies on the “small but mighty” facilities department for everything from routine upkeep to new construction planning. They’re even constantly looking at the overall sustainability of the Zoo as it works towards becoming more of a zero-waste facility.
“Plumbing, electric, janitorial – the list goes on and on,” Altrui explains. “If you think about the horticulture alone: we’re on 33 acres. They’re responsible for the flowerbeds, some of the mowing and making sure the Zoo looks beautiful all the time. That’s a lot of ground to cover.”
To complete the trifecta of teams that keep the Zoo running smoothly, there’s the anything-but-small, definitely mighty guest services crew.
“The guest experience is what it’s all about,” Altrui says, “and it’s a really fascinating piece of what we do.”
Making the Little Rock Zoo an incredible experience is big business – more accurately, it’s a mix of several different businesses, each requiring hospitality prowess and a knack for customer service.
There’s the retail element: not only running the gift shop, but keeping products stocked and navigating customer needs. There’s also the theme park-like entertainment side, thanks to the Zoo’s historic Over-the-Jumps Carousel. It’s a one-of-a-kind antique ride, and keeping it running can be a tall task. It’s a similar story for the Arkansas Diamond Express train. Skilled operators are required for both rides to keep things running correctly, safely and on time.
Not to be forgotten in this equation is concessions. Guest services members are not only working retail, manning the front gate and running rides; they’re in the restaurant business as well. Those staff members are cross-trained to cover shifts all over the Zoo, making the entire department the picture of multitasking with a smile.
“The head of that department, it may not surprise you, used to be a Southwest Airlines flight attendant,” Altrui says. “He is very customer service-oriented. He has never seen a bad day.”
The Zoo exists to inspire people to value and conserve the natural world. That manifests through a whole host of in-house programming – keeper chats, feedings, amphitheater shows and Zoofari camps, to name a few – as well as classroom programs that take place across the state. Most vitally, though, that vision depends on being able to take care of the reasons – be they striped, scaly or covered in feathers – that people show up at all.
“First and foremost,” Altrui says, “our investment in the care of our animals tells the conservation message every single day.”
The ability of the Zoo to function depends heavily on its ability to make money, and that money goes right back into the Zoo’s upkeep, education and outreach efforts. Because of the direct reinvestment, Altrui says, “Every time you come to the Zoo, you’re helping us to fulfill our mission.”