Recession Hits Zoos and Their Stars

Economy takes a toll on zoos, even as some attractions draw crowds.

Dec. 7, 2008 — -- Two years ago, he was one of the biggest stars in the world -- Knut the polar bear cub. Thousands of German zoo-goers packed in to see Knut, who was rejected by his mother. His personalized merchandise flew off the shelves and tribute songs were written in his honor.

Knut celebrated his second birthday Friday and a crowd of about 200 Knut faithful turned out to sing "Happy Birthday." They lovingly watched as Knut destroyed his birthday present of frozen fish and vegetables. But there were no cute antics and very few headlines after he enjoyed his gift.

Indeed, stardom is fleeting, even in the zoo world. Knut's snow-white and cuddly fur has gone brown, he's full grown and lacks the childlike wonder people at one time could not resist. And now the crowds are thin.

Like many zoos, the Berlin Zoo is caught in the economic downturn. Knut will need a mate but because of budget constraints, the Berlin Zoo cannot afford to expand his living enclosure. The place he has always called home will most likely have to sell him to another zoo.

The zoo superstar is a much sought after addition to zoos around the world. Baby animals, rescued animals and endangered animals bring in big crowds, which generate a lot of press and ticket sales.

Jack Hanna, of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, is familiar with zoo superstars. "When you have baby animals that are considered superstars, it does a lot for the zoo," he said. "It brings in much needed income, increased visitation, and those increased visitations are linked to a lot of dollars for the Columbus Zoo. A lot of dollars that go into conservation and education."

His zoo is the home of Colo, the first gorilla ever born in a zoological setting. She turns 52 on Dec. 22 and is the oldest gorilla living in a zoological setting. Colo is the first zoo superstar; she even graced the cover of Life magazine.

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is still glowing since the birth of their first baby elephant, Samson. He is a little more than 7 months old and weighs almost 800 pounds. Crowds pour in to see him -- not just once, but time and again.

When the zoo held a baby-naming contest, thousands applied to name the new bundle. Samson plays with everything from sticks and leaves to big pumpkins and squash.

Samson's newfound stardom brings attention to all of the other animals at the Maryland Zoo. Mike McClure, head curator and elephant manager, thinks that the attention is a good thing. "It is a good opportunity to remind people why we are here. ... It sort of puts us back in people's minds, something to think about, something to come out and see ... and it really helps us to make that connection with the public again."

He says the zoo's purpose is to educate the public about the animals at the zoo. And the public eventually connects to animals in the wild through the superstars at the zoo. The high-profile animals open the doors for people to learn about all of the animals at the zoo.

"I think, for right now, Samson is really one of the most important and entertaining pieces of the zoo," McClure said. "Folks are very interested in him and, as he grows up and people remain connected to him, that is going to continue."

There are other superstars around the country. Nipper, a dapper penguin from the Tennessee Aquarium, stars in his own commercials.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California has a White Bengal Tiger named Odin who dives for snacks of red meat. He dazzles crowds and has been the subject of many news stories both far and wide.

At the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Patrick the penguin paints. And, for a pretty penny, a piece can be commissioned.