Zoos can be incredible businesses that bring happiness to visitors, a safe place for its animal residents and steady income for the owner and employees. It can be emotionally and financially rewarding to own such a business. While it's easy to see why so many people want to open their own zoos, it's not for the faint of heart.

To make this endeavor successful, you need plenty of expertise in how to build the zoo and keep the animals healthy, the laws surrounding zoo ownership and how to make the business profitable. With this knowledge and the dedication to get it done, you can open your place for animals and humans to interact with and learn from one another.

Get Your Plan in Writing

Before you can start construction on your new zoo, you need a few things in place. First, you should put together a solid business plan. Having this plan can help you think through each step and map out your path to zoo ownership. Your business plan should include an executive summary, a description, market research, business organization and more.

First, start with defining your high-level ideas. What is your mission? What will be the look and feel of your zoo? Will your zoo be a petting zoo or house wild animals? The answers to these questions will guide your business plan.

Once you have the big concepts down, you can start planning the details. Look into your local market to see what people pay for entertainment. Decide what role you will play in the company and who you will bring on to other positions.

Funding Your Zoo

Zoos are not cheap to start up, so it's essential to have a solid financial plan in place. There are several paths to getting your business funded, including public funds, angel investors, bank loans and crowdfunding. You can explore all avenues to see what makes sense for your company.

Surprisingly, many zoos get a significant portion of their funding from taxpayers in the area. For example, public funds pay for half of the fees necessary to keep Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois up and running. Taxpayers are often willing to fund these parks because they help grow the area and give locals a great attraction.

While government funding is sometimes an option, citizens aren't always willing to approve such spending. In that case, you should explore other areas of financing. For example, you may know a wealthy person who is interested in being an angel investor. The ideal angel investor would be looking for substantial investment opportunities and be passionate about your mission. You can also apply for bank loans or start a crowdfunding campaign. In all these cases, you must have a clearly defined goal and an excellent business plan.

How to Design a Zoo

The first step in designing a great zoo is finding the perfect location. It should be close enough to major population centers that you can attract visitors. However, you need to be able to buy plenty of land with your budget. Before you purchase a piece of property, you should have professionals survey it to ensure that you can build what you need on it.

Once you have your site in mind, you can design your zoo. There are plenty of important considerations to make in this step. First, decide which kinds of building experts you will need for your project. If you need to construct elaborate enclosures, you may need to work with an architect and builder. However, if you are building a petting zoo, you should consider hiring a farm animal expert instead.

Next, think about all the animals you want to house and what types of habitats they need. The best zoos treat the animal residents with the utmost care and respect. It's important to put the animals' needs at the forefront of your design.

Finally, think about how your visitors will experience the zoo. You may choose to put the most anticipated animals in the back of the park to keep customers in the gates longer, for example. You should also carefully plan placements for restaurants, restrooms, water fountains, other amenities and attractions.

Restrictions for Building a Zoo

Because zoos are unique businesses, different laws govern these businesses. It's essential to adhere to all federal and local laws regarding keeping animals. First, check with your state, county and city to see what restrictions apply to your zoo. Then, be sure to visit the websites for the relevant federal agencies.

Several federal agencies oversee animals in captivity, some of which may not be obvious at first. For example, Homeland Security will monitor any animals that you procure from another country. Similarly, the Food and Drug Administration enforces laws relating to animals that cross state lines, even when they are not used as food. The Federal Aviation Administration ensures the humane transport of animals and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) may inspect your zoo to ensure that you provide proper veterinary care.

The laws regarding animal welfare can be complicated. It may be in your interest to hire a lawyer for your organization. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) also provides legal guidance to its members. Even if your business is not yet AZA-certified, you can subscribe to the organization's congressional newsletter to get up-to-date information on the laws surrounding zoos and aquariums.

Permits Needed to Build a Zoo

Before you can start building your zoo, you will have to acquire the proper building permits from your local jurisdiction. While this is typical for any new business, a zoo owner must obtain several additional permits before opening the gates.

For example, if you intend to house an endangered species or one that may soon become endangered, you must get special permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You need to prove that you need the animal for scientific research or reproduction of the species. If the organization considers the animal species to be "threatened," you can get a permit for the animal by proving that you are using it for education, exhibition or other particular purposes.

You may also need to get individual permits from the USDA, depending on what you need to do. For example, when you transport animals to your zoo, you may need to apply for a transport permit with the USDA.

How to Build a Zoo

With your design at hand and your team ready, it's time to start building your zoo. It's vital to ensure that your zoo reflects your overarching mission and values. For example, if your purpose is conservation, be sure to use eco-friendly building materials. Likewise, if education is important to your mission, you should carefully consider the media you use to educate your visitors.

As in the design phase, you should carefully consider animal welfare in every aspect of building the zoo. There will be decisions to make throughout the process, and it's important to choose what is in the best interest of the animals. Not only is this the right thing to do for the zoo's residents, but healthy, happy animals act naturally, which tourists love. It's a win-win for everyone.

In addition to animal welfare, safety should be a top concern to any zoo owner. As some major news stories have shown, small children can fall into enclosures and endanger both themselves and the animals. As you build your zoo, keep safety at the top of your mind.

Striking a balance between fun and safety can be the most challenging part of building a zoo. However, it is also one of the most important. The key is to look for ways that something can be entertaining for animals while also adding a layer of security. For example, a river around a gorilla enclosure provides stimulation for the animals and extra space between the edge of the enclosure and the gorillas.

Legal Considerations

In addition to permits and building restrictions, there are several legal considerations to make before you open the gates to your new zoo. Because there is an inherent risk to having people around animals, you need to think about having guests sign waivers. This is particularly important for petting zoos. Additionally, you should make sure that every guest knows the rules about interacting with animals. These steps can keep you from losing money in a lawsuit.

Although your zoo may include a lot of open space, you still need to have a certificate of occupancy on the property. Similarly, ensure that all buildings meet fire codes. You may also think about how to structure your organization legally. Becoming an LLC can keep your liability to a minimum if something goes wrong.

How to Make a Zoo Profitable

With the considerable cost of upkeep, the number of permits, and the cost of the land, it can be challenging to keep a zoo in the black. However, with the right policies and some forward-thinking programs, you can make your zoo profitable.

First, you should determine how much to charge visitors. Striking just the right balance is important. If you charge too much, you may not get many visitors. Charge too little, and you won't be able to keep the lights on. Market research is vital in determining your pricing structure. Look at similar attractions in your area and the average household income.

In addition to the cost of entry, zoos can upsell to customers for a steady stream of income. If you've ever heard that movie theaters make more from popcorn than movie tickets, you know this concept. You can charge visitors a flat fee for entry, then offer add-ons for an additional fee.

While food is an obvious and profitable upsell, it's not the only way to make money. Gift shops, private tours, special events and annual memberships also allow visitors to get more from their visit while making the zoo profitable.

You should also determine your costs for operation. Consider every expense from food for the animals to business insurance and payroll. This number may need to be flexible, but it can help you determine how many visitors you need to attract to remain profitable.

Another critical aspect of making your zoo profitable is saving money where you can. While you shouldn't skimp on essential costs like safety features and veterinary bills, there are a few places you can save a bundle. For example, make sure to make your zoo a non-profit organization if you can, which allows you to pay no taxes on the business's income.

Furthermore, you can buy supplies in bulk, negotiate with vendors and make partnerships with other local organizations. Some petting zoos partner with the local 4H club to have high school students take care of some of the animals. You could also partner with a nearby pet store to advertise with you. The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination.