How to Start a Petting Zoo Business

Child touching goat at a petting zoo
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Kids never get tired of petting zoos. The chance to interact with and learn about many different wild animals presents a fun, educational opportunity for families, schools, and other groups. What's more, a petting zoo can be a fun and profitable business opportunity for animal lovers. If you think you might be interested in starting your own petting zoo, here's what you need to know.

Legal Considerations

Be sure to take out any licenses or permits required by federal, state, or local government agencies. It's wise to begin by researching requirements with the Department of Agriculture, local zoning boards, and local licensing boards before setting out to develop a petting zoo in any particular locale.

Make sure that your business has a liability insurance policy to protect against injury claims from park visitors. Animals can be unpredictable, and even the most docile animal can strike out when it feels threatened. Liability insurance will protect you and your park against lawsuits.

Location of Your Zoo

A petting zoo generally requires the use of 10 acres (or more) for proper planning. The more animals you plan to have, the more room you will need.

That being said, you don't want to place yourself too far from the city. Extremely rural petting zoos will usually not generate enough revenue to stay in business. Locate your petting zoo within a reasonable driving distance from a city or large town to generate sufficient customer traffic.

Animals

Petting zoos may include a wide variety of animals. Common choices include horses, ponies, sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, deer, alpacas, giant tortoises, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, ducks, and geese. Larger animals will need to be separated from guests behind fences, and they will require close monitoring when interactions take place. Some petting farms also feature free flight aviaries (where tropical birds interact with guests) and fish ponds with koi.

Animals should be purchased from reputable breeders, farms, or other petting zoos. It is important to give each animal time to adjust to its new surroundings, and to be sure that the animals selected for the zoo are reasonably well mannered and tolerant of the attention they will be receiving.

Petting Zoo Facilities

A petting zoo should be safely enclosed with a network of fences and gates to prevent animal escapes. Areas that are off limits to the public should be clearly marked. Rules for visitor conduct and safety should also be clearly posted on signs near each animal enclosure.

The facilities for the animals should include both display areas (where animals can interact with visitors) and areas that are restricted from public access. It's also important to have areas where you can quarantine any sick animals or those about to give birth. Adequate shade is another important feature for both the animals and the patrons of the zoo.

The facilities for visitors should include a concessions area, bathroom facility, safe paths for walking between exhibits, paved or gravel parking areas, and seating areas. Golf carts, trucks, trailers, and farm equipment will be necessary to move animals and supplies. Larger parks often offer train rides around the park.

Staffing

Depending on the scale of your operation, you may need to hire additional full- or part-time staff to clean up after the animals, give food and water, sell tickets or concessions, operate the gift shop, perform general park maintenance, and supervise guests as they interact with the animals. Most petting zoos are run as a family business or with hired help—they are rarely a one-person endeavor.

It is not necessary to have a veterinarian on site, but you should contract with a local vet to provide care for your animals when necessary.

Cost of Admission

The cost of admission may vary based on the size of the petting zoo and what is offered, but in general, the cost of daily admission will range from $8 to $15 per person. There may be additional fees for animal feed, pony rides, train rides, or other activities. Many petting zoos offer discounts on days with less visitor traffic, such as Mondays and Tuesdays.

Marketing

Once you've got your zoo ready, you've just got to get people there. It's important to market a petting zoo to the right target audience: children and their parents. Schools, daycares, scouting groups, and other such groups may also be interested in taking their students on field trips to your location.

The best places to spend your advertising dollars will be local newspapers and magazines. Online and social media ads also are a great way to get the word out about your business.

You should also create a webpage and social media pages with all the relevant details about the petting zoo, including hours, cost, and any additional activities that might be available (such as on-site birthday parties or bringing animals to a client’s party location). Incentivize people on your email newsletter list by offering coupons in exchange for signing up.

Donating tickets to charities or offering a discounted rate to large school groups are other guaranteed ways to generate patron traffic. You'll want to exhaust every possible avenue for getting first-time visitors to try out your new petting zoo.