September 23, 2013 8:46:54 AM
JACKSON -- The national Association of Zoos & Aquariums has pulled its accreditation from the only Mississippi zoo which held it, because of financial instability.
The Jackson Zoo, which keeps 773 animals on 30 acres next to Livingston Park in west Jackson, will keep provisional accreditation during an appeal process that ends in March, The Clarion-Ledger reported.
The problem is that fewer and fewer people are coming to see the zoo's animals and its interactive exhibits, educational programs and indoor and outdoor activities. Attendance has dropped from a peak of 192,000 to 117,000 last year. Ticket sales last year brought $850,275, less than one-quarter of the zoo's budget. Six years earlier, tickets brought in nearly $1.2 million, two-thirds of all revenue.
As a result, the zoo now relies more heavily on government subsidies to stay afloat. It got more than $2.2 million combined -- about two-thirds of its $3.5 million budget -- last year alone from the state and the city.
The zoo itself is well run but its location is one of the more "challenged" among the roughly 220 AZA-accredited zoos in North America, said national zoo consultant Rick Biddle of Philadelphia, Pa.-based Schultz & Williams.
"You are just under one mile from 220 to the zoo, and that's a rough one mile," said Biddle, who is helping the Jackson Zoo examine its options. "It needs to be more engaging and welcoming; it needs to have a sense of arrival. If you see no signs or all you see is the bumpy road, then you are starting your experience wrong."
The zoo's executive director, Beth Poff, said many people tell her "I used to come all the time but my neighbor's afraid to come" or "I never go to west Jackson. I'm afraid to go to the zoo."
Zoo officials face hard choices: Closing the park, cutting its collection, renovating and adding new exhibits in hopes of drawing bigger crowds, or relocating.
Closure is a worst-case scenario. "That would be a tragedy for this city and the state," said board member Eric Stracener.
City leaders strongly oppose moving the zoo somewhere more family-friendly like LeFleur's Bluff State Park.
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