Should we privatize the National Zoo?

In recent times the National Zoo, of the Smithsonian, has been beset by one scandal after another. First large numbers of animals have died due to incompetent management. Then we discovered that Zoo management forged records for how those animals were being treated. The performance and credibility of the Zoo are arguably at an all-time low.

Marc Fisher of The Washington Post now suggests privatizing the zoo.

…there is a healthy middle course that a number of cities have already explored with encouraging results. By contracting with a private nonprofit, often one built up from the local zoological society, cities have ensured better management, more modern exhibits and caring support from local animal lovers.

“The best success story is in New York City,” says Hyson. In 1980, three municipally run zoos — in Central Park, Brooklyn and Queens — were turned over to the New York Zoological Society, curator of the world-renowned Bronx Zoo, and the result has been nothing short of spectacular. The zoos were completely remade, with more effective designs, better animal care and more pleasing exhibits. The zoos still get a city subsidy, and they did have to add an admission fee, but the result is vastly better for all concerned.

About 40 percent of the 165 zoos accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association are run by private nonprofits now, the result of a wave of privatization over the past generation. Seattle just finished transferring control of its zoo from the city to the local zoological society. San Diego’s world-famous zoo is privately run, depending on government for only 2 percent of its funds.

Yes, this probably would mean admission fees, rather than the current null tariff. But why should admission to the zoo be free? If poor urban children need a price break, or free admission, this can be granted. In the meantime, the best way to give customers a say in how the zoo is run is to make them significant financiers.


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