Tough times hit Tacoma's Point Defiance Zoo

Tough times hit Tacoma's Point Defiance Zoo »Play Video
TACOMA, Wash. -- Point Defiance may house lions that roar and tigers that roam, but the zoo and aquarium is struggling to escape the stranglehold of the economy.

"This is a year unlike anything we've ever experienced," said John Houck, deputy director of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. "We could be several hundreds of thousands of dollars short on our budget."

Half of the zoo's $10 million budget comes from Pierce County's sales tax, which last year tumbled 6 percent and continues to drop.

The zoo has a cost-cutting plan. Starting Tuesday, it won't be open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during its four slowest months of the year -- January, February, November and December.

"There's $40,000 in savings right there," Houck said.

Attendance isn't the problem. The zoo and aquarium exceeded 2008 visitor projections.

But on Monday, there were 32 visitors by 1 p.m. And by mid-week in the slower months, things tend to slow down even more.

"Depending on the weather we can have a day where nobody comes. Nobody comes," said Houck.

Point Defiance has issued a hiring freeze, and plans to use fewer temporary workers. It has also slashed $26,000 from its outreach education program.

The cuts will not affect the zoo's animals. Zoo officials say the food budget here is healthy and robust. They won't cut corners on animal care and the veterinary budget is sacrosanct.

Like many others, the zoo will try to weather its way through 2009. It still has a rainy day reserve, but wants to keep that caged away for now.

The snow the region saw in the days leading up to Christmas cost the zoo thousands of dollars as it shut down for an entire week during the annual Zoolights festival. In an attempt to regain some of the money lost, Zoolights will be open again this weekend.

Woodland Park Zoo also set attendance highs this past year, and doesn't bank on sales tax for budgeting. As a result, the Seattle zoo is not facing the same hardships.