As a child I can remember going to the Saint Louis Zoo with my family. Each visit we would stop outside the North Gate to visit our copper cast reptile friends that had long since polished clean by an uncountable number of children’s (and adults') hands. Then walking through the turnstiles, I would stare upward at the “life-size" Giant Squid and jaw-dropping Megalodon (a massive prehistoric shark), which hung ominously above my head. My brother and I would then do a quick lap of as many indoor exhibits as we could before our parents wrangled us together and led us down the stairs and off to experience the part of my childhood that connected me with the bigger (much bigger) natural world.
Because I frequently visited the Saint Louis Zoo as a child (and now visit the San Diego Zoo as an adult) I was—and still am—connected to a world, an environment, and an experience that I would be hard pressed to find anywhere else.
But I noticed something dramatically different between the Saint Louis Zoo and the San Diego Zoo: the cost of entry.
A current one-day adult ticket to the San Diego Zoo is $50. And a child ticket (ages 3–11) is $40. So if we add that up for a household of two adult and two kids, a day at the zoo costs $180!
Compare that to the Saint Louis Zoo, where it's FREE.
As Wesley Schultz points out in his post on this site, "zoos and aquariums provide visitors with an opportunity to connect with nature in a safe environment." And "zoos can inspire visitors by showcasing the diversity of life on the planet, and these experiences prompt us to care about things and beings beyond ourselves."
Why then should an experience, so critical to our well being and essential to our feeling a connection to nature , cost $180? I know what you’re thinking. Maintenance and overhead and salaries, food costs, etc. But aren't these the same justifications that Disney uses in order to charge people a “value” price of $97 for anyone over the age of 10.
I guess that's the point I am trying to make. Why should zoos cost so much to experience? Do we get the same “connected to nature” feeling when we visit Mickey or Donald? Are zoos just "nature-based" theme parks that connect us to our environment for a price? Is nature—or as some have told me "just looking at animals"—equal to a ride at Six Flags? Or are zoos something more?
Somehow the Saint Louis Zoo has managed to thrive in a world where its costs so much to "experience" nature. Maybe the San Diego Zoo, and other "pay to experience" nature destinations, can rethink their approach.
If one tenth of the world's population passes through the gates of zoos and aquariums annually now, imagine how many more people would visit if it were free?