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How to Start a Zoo

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Published on June 20, 2022

Updated on August 12, 2022

How to Start a Zoo

How to Start a Zoo

Zoos offer family fun and help with animal conservation, which is why the US zoo industry is set for sharp 9% growth in 2022 after a pandemic slump. Starting a zoo is of course a massive undertaking, but if you love animals and enjoy providing a fun, educational experience, you can build a thriving zoo operation that helps build your community. 

But before you start dreaming of lions, tigers, and bears, you’ll need to understand what it takes to start a business. Fortunately, this step-by-step guide has you covered with all the info you need to get your zoo up and running and putting smiles on countless faces. 

Fast Facts

Investment range

$4,001,550 - $12,154,100

Time to build

12 – 18 months

Industry trend

growing

Revenue potential

$1,095,000 - $5,475,000 p.a.

Profit potential

$0 - $0 p.a.

Commitment

full-time

Step 1: Decide if the Business Is Right for You

businessman thinking for business ideas pros and cons concept

Pros and cons

Starting a zoo has pros and cons to consider before deciding if it’s right for you.

Pros

  • Have Purpose – Help save endangered animals
  • Sizable Income – Most zoos are non-profit, but you should make good money
  • Good Times – Zoos are fun for kids of all ages!

Cons

  • Large Investment – Starting a zoo takes a huge budget
  • Ongoing Expenses – Just feeding the animals costs a lot

Zoo industry trends

Industry size and growth

Trends and challenges

Trends in the zoo industry include:

  • Zoos are designing larger enclosures with real trees and ponds, encouraging more natural behavior that’s better for the animals and conservation research.
  • Research is becoming more of a focus for zoos, leading to more ways to protect animals and encourage proliferation. 

Challenges in the zoo industry include:

  • Concerns have been raised about the well-being of animals kept in enclosures, which can lead to serious physical ailments. 
  • Lack of regulations has led to poorly managed zoos that fall short in terms of animal breeding and maintaining animal health.

How much does it cost to start a zoo business?

Startup costs for a zoo range from $4 million to $12 million. Costs include the land and construction of enclosures and facilities. You’ll also have to purchase animals, which zoos generally buy from other zoos. 

A zoology degree would be very helpful for you to understand how to care for and manage animals. You can find online degree programs at many colleges and universities in the U.S. Experience working in a zoo is also helpful.

If a zoo is too overwhelming for you financially, you could start a petting zoo, or even a mobile petting zoo for children’s parties. This would help build up your experience and save money toward opening your own zoo. 

You’ll need a handful of items to successfully launch your zoo business, including: 

  • Animal enclosures
  • Animal feeding equipment
  • Animal handling equipment
  • Water systems
  • Snack bars and equipment
Start-up CostsBallpark RangeAverage
Setting up a business name and corporation$150 - $200$175
Business licenses and permits$100 - $300$200
Insurance$100-$300$200
Business cards and brochures$200 - $300$250
Website setup$1,000 - $3,000$2,000
Land$150,000 - $500,000$325,000
Construction of enclosures and buildings$3,000,000 -$10,000,000$6,500,000
Labor and operating budget$500,000 - $1,000,000$750,000
Animals$350,000 - $650,000$500,000
Total$4,001,550 - $12,154,100$8,077,825

How much can you earn from a zoo business?

Zoos are generally non-profit organizations, which means that any revenues that exceed expenses must be put back into the business. In addition, a key element of non-profits is that they are allowed to accept donations and government funding. 

Still, you’ll want to try to make your zoo as self-sustaining as possible, from admissions and membership fees, food and drink and gift shop sales, and attractions like pony rides. The average zoo admission cost is $15, although popular zoos like the San Diego Zoo charge up to $50. 

In your first year or two, you might get an average of 100 visitors per day, each of whom spends $30, bringing in $1,095,000 in annual revenue. At that stage, you would probably be relying heavily on donations to cover your substantial operating costs. 

As your zoo gains popularity, you might get 500 visitors a day, bringing in annual revenue of $5,475,000. At this point, you should be able to finance your own healthy zoo operation, and perhaps even consider expansion. 

What barriers to entry are there?

There are a few barriers to entry for a zoo. Your biggest challenges will be:

  • The substantial startup costs of construction and operations
  • The skills required to manage a zoo and ensure animal welfare

Step 2: Hone Your Idea

Now that you know what’s involved in starting a zoo, it’s a good idea to hone your concept in preparation to enter a competitive market. 

Why? Identify an opportunity

Research zoos in your area to examine their services, price points, and customer reviews. You’re looking for a market gap to fill. For instance, maybe the local market is missing a zoo with natural habitats for large mammals or a zoo that has birds like ostriches.

You might consider targeting a niche market by specializing in a certain aspect of your industry, such as reptiles or local wildlife species. This could jumpstart your word-of-mouth marketing and attract clients right away. 

What? Determine your products or services

You’ll charge admission for the zoo and may charge for other attractions like guided tours, pony rides or a petting zoo. You can make money from snacks and gifts as well. 

How much should you charge for zoo services?

The average zoo admission price is about $15. Check zoo prices in your local area or in your state to make sure you’re competitive. 

Once you know your costs, you can use this Step By Step profit margin calculator to determine your mark-up and final price points. Remember, the prices you use at launch should be subject to change if warranted by the market.

Who? Identify your target market

Your target market will mainly be young families. You can market to them on Instagram and Facebook. You might also reach out to local schools for field trips, and area businesses for corporate events. Find them on LinkedIn, Google and Yelp. 

Should you start a zoo business

Step 3: Brainstorm a Business Name

Your business name is your business identity, so choose one that encapsulates your objectives, services, and mission in just a few words. You probably want a name that’s short and easy to remember, since much of your business, and your initial business in particular, will come from word-of-mouth referrals.

Here are some ideas for brainstorming your business name:

  • Short, unique, and catchy names tend to stand out
  • Names that are easy to say and spell tend to do better 
  • Name should be relevant to your product or service offerings
  • Ask around — family, friends, colleagues, social media — for suggestions
  • Including keywords, such as “zoo” or “family zoo”, boosts SEO
  • Name should allow for expansion, for ex: “Jim’s Bakery” over “Jim’s Cookies”
  • Avoid location-based names that might hinder future expansion
  • Use online tools like the Step by Step Business Name Generator. Just type in a few keywords and hit “generate” and you’ll have dozens of suggestions at your fingertips.

Once you’ve got a list of potential names, visit the website of the US Patent and Trademark Office to make sure they are available for registration and check the availability of related domain names using our Domain Name Search tool. Using “.com” or “.org” sharply increases credibility, so it’s best to focus on these. 

Finally, make your choice among the names that pass this screening and go ahead with domain registration and social media account creation. Your business name is one of the key differentiators that sets your business apart. Once you pick your company name, and start with the branding, it is hard to change the business name. Therefore, it’s important to carefully consider your choice before you start a business entity.

Step 4: Create a Business Plan

Every business needs a plan. This will function as a guidebook to take your startup through the launch process and maintain focus on your key goals. A business plan also enables potential partners and investors to better understand your company and its vision:

  • Executive Summary: Brief overview of the entire business plan; should be written after the plan is complete.
  • Business Overview: Overview of the company, vision, mission, ownership, and corporate goals.
  • Product and Services: Describe your offerings in detail.
  • Market Analysis: Assess market trends such as variations in demand and prospects for growth, and do a SWOT analysis.
  • Competitive Analysis: Analyze main competitors, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and create a list of the advantages of your services.
  • Sales and Marketing: Examine your companies’ unique selling propositions (USPs) and develop sales, marketing, and promotional strategies.
  • Management Team: Overview of management team, detailing their roles and professional background, along with a corporate hierarchy.
  • Operations Plan: Your company’s operational plan includes procurement, office location, key assets and equipment, and other logistical details.
  • Financial Plan: Three years of financial planning, including startup costs, break-even analysis, profit and loss estimates, cash flow, and balance sheet.
  • Appendix: Include any additional financial or business-related documents.

If you’ve never created a business plan, it can be an intimidating task. You might consider hiring a business plan specialist at Fiverr to create a top-notch business plan for you.

Step 5: Register Your Business

Registering your business is an absolutely crucial step — it’s the prerequisite to paying taxes, raising capital, opening a bank account, and other guideposts on the road to getting a business up and running. 

Plus, registration is exciting because it makes the entire process official. Once it’s complete, you’ll have your own business! 

Choose where to register your company

Your business location is important because it can affect taxes, legal requirements, and revenue. Most people will register their business in the state where they live, but if you’re planning to expand, you might consider looking elsewhere, as some states could offer real advantages when it comes to zoos 

If you’re willing to move, you could really maximize your business! Keep in mind, it’s relatively easy to transfer your business to another state. 

Choose your business structure

Business entities come in several varieties, each with its pros and cons. The legal structure you choose for your zoo will shape your taxes, personal liability, and business registration requirements, so choose wisely. 

Here are the main options:

  • Sole Proprietorship – The most common structure for small businesses makes no legal distinction between company and owner. All income goes to the owner, who’s also liable for any debts, losses, or liabilities incurred by the business. The owner pays taxes on business income on his or her personal tax return.
  • General Partnership – Similar to a sole proprietorship, but for two or more people. Again, owners keep the profits and are liable for losses. The partners pay taxes on their share of business income on their personal tax returns.
  • Limited Liability Company (LLC) – Combines the characteristics of corporations with those of sole proprietorships or partnerships. Again, the owners are not personally liable for debts.
  • C Corp – Under this structure, the business is a distinct legal entity and the owner or owners are not personally liable for its debts. Owners take profits through shareholder dividends, rather than directly. The corporation pays taxes, and owners pay taxes on their dividends, which is sometimes referred to as double taxation.
  • S Corp – An S-Corporation refers to the tax classification of the business but is not a business entity. An S-Corp can be either a corporation or an LLC, which just need to elect to be an S-Corp for tax status. In an S-Corp, income is passed through directly to shareholders, who pay taxes on their share of business income on their personal tax returns.

If you decide to operate for profit, we recommend that new business owners choose LLC as it offers liability protection and pass-through taxation while being simpler to form than a corporation. You can form an LLC in as little as five minutes using ZenBusiness’s online LLC formation service. They will check that your business name is available before filing, submit your articles of organization, and answer any questions you might have. 

However, most zoos operate as non-profit organizations. 

Step 6: Register for Taxes

The final step before you’re able to pay taxes is getting an Employer Identification Number, or EIN. You can file for your EIN online or by mail or fax: visit the IRS website to learn more. Keep in mind, if you’ve chosen to be a sole proprietorship you can simply use your social security number as your EIN. 

Once you have your EIN, you’ll need to choose your tax year. Financially speaking, your business will operate in a calendar year (January–December) or a fiscal year, a 12-month period that can start in any month. This will determine your tax cycle, while your business structure will determine which taxes you’ll pay.

The IRS website also offers a tax-payers checklist, and taxes can be filed online. It is important to consult an accountant or other professional to help you with your taxes to ensure you’re completing them correctly.

Step 7: Fund your Business

Securing financing is your next step and there are plenty of ways to raise capital:

  • Bank loans: This is the most common method but getting approved requires a rock-solid business plan and strong credit history.
  • SBA-guaranteed loans: The Small Business Administration can act as guarantor, helping gain that elusive bank approval via an SBA-guaranteed loan.
  • Government grants: A handful of financial assistance programs help fund entrepreneurs. Visit Grants.gov to learn which might work for you.
  • Friends and Family: Reach out to friends and family to provide a business loan or investment in your concept. It’s a good idea to have legal advice when doing so because SEC regulations apply.
  • Crowdfunding: Websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer an increasingly popular low-risk option, in which donors fund your vision. Entrepreneurial crowdfunding sites like Fundable and WeFunder enable multiple investors to fund your business.
  • Personal: Self-fund your business via your savings or the sale of property or other assets.

Bank and SBA loans are probably the best option, other than friends and family, for funding a zoo business. You might also try crowdfunding if you have an innovative concept. You also could try to do public fundraising. 

Step 8: Apply for Licenses/Permits

Starting a zoo business requires obtaining a number of licenses and permits from local, state, and federal governments.

Federal zoo licenses are distributed by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is a part of the Department of Agriculture. You’ll also need to make sure that you comply with the Animal Welfare Act

Federal regulations, licenses, and permits associated with starting your business include doing business as (DBA), health licenses and permits from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), trademarks, copyrights, patents, and other intellectual properties, as well as industry-specific licenses and permits. 

You may also need state-level and local county or city-based licenses and permits. The license requirements and how to obtain them vary, so check the websites of your state, city, and county governments or contact the appropriate person to learn more. 

You could also check this SBA guide for your state’s requirements, but we recommend using MyCorporation’s Business License Compliance Package. They will research the exact forms you need for your business and state and provide them to ensure you’re fully compliant.

This is not a step to be taken lightly, as failing to comply with legal requirements can result in hefty penalties. If you feel overwhelmed by this step or don’t know how to begin, it might be a good idea to hire a professional to help you check all the legal boxes.

businessman working on documents for business permit

Step 9: Open a Business Bank Account

Before you start making money, you’ll need a place to keep it, and that requires opening a bank account.

Keeping your business finances separate from your personal account makes it easy to file taxes and track your company’s income, so it’s worth doing even if you’re running your zoo business as a sole proprietorship. Opening a business bank account is quite simple, and similar to opening a personal one. Most major banks offer accounts tailored for businesses — just inquire at your preferred bank to learn about their rates and features.

Banks vary in terms of offerings, so it’s a good idea to examine your options and select the best plan for you. Once you choose your bank, bring in your EIN (or Social Security Number if you decide on a sole proprietorship), articles of incorporation, and other legal documents and open your new account. 

Step 10: Get Business Insurance

Business insurance is an area that often gets overlooked yet it can be vital to your success as an entrepreneur. Insurance protects you from unexpected events that can have a devastating impact on your business.

Here are some types of insurance to consider:

  • General liability: The most comprehensive type of insurance, acting as a catch-all for many business elements that require coverage. If you get just one kind of insurance, this is it. It even protects against bodily injury and property damage.
  • Business Property: Provides coverage for your equipment and supplies.
  • Equipment Breakdown Insurance: Covers the cost of replacing or repairing equipment that has broken due to mechanical issues.
  • Worker’s compensation: Provides compensation to employees injured on the job.
  • Property: Covers your physical space, whether it is a cart, storefront, or office.
  • Commercial auto: Protection for your company-owned vehicle.
  • Professional liability: Protects against claims from a client who says they suffered a loss due to an error or omission in your work.
  • Business owner’s policy (BOP): This is an insurance plan that acts as an all-in-one insurance policy, a combination of the above insurance types.

Step 11: Prepare to Launch

As opening day nears, prepare for launch by reviewing and improving some key elements of your business. 

Essential software and tools

Being an entrepreneur often means wearing many hats, from marketing to sales to accounting, which can be overwhelming. Fortunately, many websites and digital tools are available to help simplify many business tasks. 

You may want to use industry-specific software, such as blackbaud, Species360, or ZooEasy, to manage your animal care, operations, admissions, and ticketing. 

Accounting

  • Popular web-based accounting programs for smaller businesses include Quickbooks, Freshbooks, and Xero
  • If you’re unfamiliar with basic accounting, you may want to hire a professional, especially as you begin. The consequences for filing incorrect tax documents can be harsh, so accuracy is crucial.

Marketing

Some of your business will come from the casual passerby or online visitors, but you should still invest in digital marketing! Getting the word out is especially important for new businesses, as it’ll boost customer and brand awareness. 

Once your website is up and running, link it to your social media accounts and vice versa. Social media is a great tool for promoting your business because you can create engaging posts that advertise your products: 

  • Facebook: Great platform for paid advertising, allows you to target specific demographics, like men under age 50 in the Cleveland area. 
  • Instagram: Same benefits as Facebook but with different target audiences.
  • Website: SEO will help your website appear closer to the top in relevant search results, a crucial element for increasing sales. Make sure that you optimize calls to action on your website. Experiment with text, color, size, and position of calls to action such as “Buy Tickets Now”. This can sharply increase purchases. 
  • Google and Yelp: For businesses that rely on local clientele, getting listed on Yelp and Google My Business can be crucial to generating awareness and customers.

Kickstart Marketing

Take advantage of your website, social media presence and real-life activities to increase awareness of your offerings and build your brand. Some suggestions include: 

  • Signage – Put up eye-catching signage at your zoo and website 
  • Post a video – Post a video about your zoo. Use humor and maybe it will go viral!
  • Email marketing/newsletter – Send regular emails to customers and prospects. Make them personal. 
  • Start a blog – Start a blog and post regularly. Change up your content and share on multiple sites.. 
  • Press releases – Do press releases about new exhibits.
  • Paid ads on social media – Choose sites that will reach your target market and do targeted ads.
  • Payper-click marketing – Use Google AdWords to perform better in searches. Research your keywords first.
  • Influencer marketing – Pay people with large social media followings to promote your zoo. You can find micro-influencers with smaller followings and lower rates.

Develop your website

Website development is crucial because your site is your online presence and needs to convince prospective clients of your expertise and professionalism. They are unlikely to find your website, however, unless you follow Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices. These are steps that help pages rank higher in the results of top search engines like Google. 

You can create your own website using services like WordPress, Wix, or Squarespace. This route is very affordable, but figuring out how to build a website can be time-consuming. If you lack tech-savvy, you can hire a web designer or developer to create a custom website for your business.

Focus on USPs

Unique selling propositions, or USPs, are the characteristics of a product or service that sets it apart from the competition. Customers today are inundated with buying options, so you’ll have a real advantage if they are able to quickly grasp how your zoo meets their needs or wishes. It’s wise to do all you can to ensure your USPs stand out on your website and in your marketing and promotional materials, stimulating buyer desire. 

Global pizza chain Domino’s is renowned for its USP: “Hot pizza in 30 minutes or less, guaranteed.” Signature USPs for your zoo business could be:

  • Your annual zoo membership means endless family fun 
  • Save endangered species with a lovely day at the zoo
  • Exotic animals and more at your local world-class zoo

Networking

You may not like to network or use personal connections for business gain. But your personal and professional networks likely offer considerable untapped business potential. Maybe that Facebook friend you met in college is now running a zoo, or a LinkedIn contact of yours is connected to dozens of potential clients. Maybe your cousin or neighbor has been working in zoos for years and can offer invaluable insight and industry connections. 

The possibilities are endless, so it’s a good idea to review your personal and professional networks and reach out to those with possible links to or interest in zoos. You’ll probably generate new customers or find companies with which you could establish a partnership. 

Step 12: Build Your Team

If you’re starting out small from a home office, you may not need any employees. But as your business grows, you will likely need workers to fill various roles. Potential positions for a zoo business include:

  • Admissions Attendants – sell tickets
  • Animal Caregivers – feed animals, clean enclosures
  • Veterinarian – care for sick animals
  • Cleaners – clean up park area
  • Zoo Director – manage operations, accounting
  • Marketing Lead – SEO strategies, social media, fundraising

At some point, you may need to hire all of these positions or simply a few, depending on the size and needs of your business. You might also hire multiple workers for a single role or a single worker for multiple roles, again depending on need. 

Free-of-charge methods to recruit employees include posting ads on popular platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Jobs.com. You might also consider a premium recruitment option, such as advertising on Indeed, Glassdoor, or ZipRecruiter. Further, if you have the resources, you could consider hiring a recruitment agency to help you find talent. 

Step 13: Start Making Money!

Who doesn’t remember going to the zoo as a child and being fascinated by all the exotic animals? Zoos are a great way to enjoy amazing animals and help save our natural world. Starting a zoo is quite a process, but it could be the perfect way for you to do good and enjoy animals while making a good living. 

Now that you’ve got all the information you need, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and start finding some fascinating animals to build around. 

Zoo Business FAQs

How much does it cost to start a zoo?

Starting a zoo is an expensive proposition and will cost at least $4 million. You may be able to do fundraising in your community to get some of the capital it takes to construct your zoo.

How profitable is a zoo?

Zoos are generally set up as non-profits and generally rely on donations to supplement their high operating costs. Owning a zoo, however, can be quite rewarding, as you’re contributing to the animal conservation cause.

Do I need a license to start a zoo?

Federal zoo licenses are distributed by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is a part of the Department of Agriculture. You may also need other business licenses and permits at the state and local levels. Check with your local governments for requirements or visit MyCorporation’s Business License Compliance page.

What experience should I have to start a zoo?

A zoology degree would be helpful for you to understand how to care for and manage animals. You can find online degree programs at many colleges and universities in the U.S. Experience working in a zoo is also helpful.