By Angela von Weber-Hahnsberg
Have you ever thought of starting a petting zoo business? Have you ever smiled at the sight of a teen’s cool facade vanishing, as they tentatively cup their hands to hold a fuzzy little duckling for the very first time? Or chuckled to see a toddler following a goat on unsteady legs, giggling delightedly, pudgy little arms outstretched? And in addition to all these warm fuzzies, do you need to bring in some extra money to pay the bills each month, or maybe even replace a lost income? Then why not make use of the resources you already have on hand — farm animals, land, and a love of sharing them with others — and try starting a petting zoo business?
As a way to generate income from a small family farm, starting a petting zoo business can make a lot of sense. If you already have an assortment of animals, then you’ve most likely already got the pens to keep them in. You’re already feeding and caring for them. Why not take the few extra steps needed to start a money-making agriculture business from the things you already do every day?
Putting together a detailed business plan is the best way to begin. The first thing you’ll need to decide is whether your petting zoo will be mobile or located on your property—or both! If you already have a trailer, and cages to transport smaller animals in, then a mobile petting zoo is a no-brainer. All you’ll need to add to the mix are portable pens to set up on location. Dianne Condarco, owner of Rancho Condarco, a mobile petting zoo based in Bailey, Texas, has this advice: “All of your animal transportation equipment needs to stay in good repair at all times. You also need to carry full coverage (insurance) on your vehicle. My husband has designed fencing for us that is sturdy and easy to carry and set up. We bought cages that open from the top to carry our small animals in, to make it easier to take them in and out. If you buy your cages and supplies in bulk, it will help keep your costs down.”
If you’d like to open your farm to the public, first double-check your zoning. Are there any deed restrictions on your land? Then take some time to consider the following: do you have an area that can be used for parking? What will be the ramifications of the increased traffic to your area? Is your current farm set-up conducive to a great guest experience, or does it need to be changed? Dave Erickson, owner of Erickson’s Petting Zoo in Osakis, Minnesota, has experience in this area: “Location is very important, also. Those who are close to major population centers have it the easiest for drawing large numbers of people.”
Your next consideration should be which services you’ll offer your customers. For an onsite petting zoo: Will your farm have certain hours when it’s open for business every day, or will you open by appointment only? Will you offer birthday or school field trip packages? What about holiday events, like pumpkin patches for Halloween, or bunnies and chicks at Easter? And for a mobile operation: Will you work large festivals? Birthday parties at private residences? Educational presentations at schools and libraries? How many hours will you stay at each event? Remember to take set-up, breakdown, and cleaning into consideration! Erickson gives us his own set-up as an example: “Our petting zoo is open daily from 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Our daily traffic varies from just a few families to more. We also host school trips in the spring and fall, travel to nursing homes and assisted living homes, and operate a mobile petting zoo and pony rides for festivals and fairs. From mid-September to Halloween, it’s the busy season on the farm, with our pick-your-own pumpkin patch and corn maze. As we have found out, families really enjoy coming out to a real farm to get their pumpkin. We offer a full range of fun activities for the whole family to make a day out of their trip.”
The next decision you’ll need to make regarding starting a petting zoo business is which animals you’ll include. Condarco cautions, “Start small and grow as your business grows. Stay lean, and work smarter, not harder, by not having more animals than you need to provide your service.” You may be surprised to learn that there are different USDA laws regulating the care and exhibition of different animals. For example, throwing a few cuddly puppies in with your mix of farm animals might sound like a good idea—until you realize that the exhibition of cats and dogs is governed by a completely different (and much more complicated) set of rules than that of livestock. Guinea pigs and hamsters have their own set of rules, as do rabbits. So before you add Thumper or Hammy to the menagerie, you’ll want to read through the law, and see if the additional effort and expense is worth the benefit of including these animals.
Speaking of the USDA regulations, the next step you take should be to order the Animal Welfare Act and Animal Welfare Regulations booklet from the USDA or access it online at www.aphis.usda.gov. Before you begin building new pens and duck shelters, or buying crates to transport animals in, you’ll need a thorough understanding of the rules governing animal enclosures. Ensuring that your petting zoo facilities are up to snuff is vital to the success of your business because you will have to be inspected and licensed as an exhibitor by the USDA before you can open to the public. Condarco tells us, “I was scared of the USDA licensing process—it looked so complicated. But my daughter just kept telling me to do it. She got the paperwork for me, and it really wasn’t as hard to do as I thought.”
Getting your “Class C” license isn’t difficult, as long as you follow the rules. Those rules specify not only how your enclosures should be built, but also how your animals should be cared for. They dictate minimum cleaning and feeding schedules, as well as requiring that a veterinarian be formally retained by your petting zoo in order to monitor the animals’ health, such as chicken ailments. You will also be responsible for keeping records outlining your animals’ program of veterinary care, as well as the details of all animal purchases.
Once you have everything in place, you can pay the application fee of $10, and invite the USDA inspector for a visit. If you pass the inspection, you’ll be required to pay an annual licensing fee based on the number of animals in your petting zoo. For example, for 6-25 animals, you’ll pay $85, while a license for 26-50 animals will cost you $185. But be careful not to let your level of compliance slip—inspectors will make surprise visits every once in a while to make sure that everything is still hunky-dory.
At this point, you’ll want to get a solid insurance policy to cover your fledgling business. No matter how many safety precautions you take, mixing kids and animals is always unpredictable. And as Condarco reminds us, “Liability insurance is important to protect yourself and your family. Many churches and cities will not even do business with you without it!”
Now, all that remains is to let the world know about your petting zoo. Erickson recommends holding a grand opening event with free admission: “We put an ad in the local newspaper that we were opening a petting zoo with an ‘Open Barn.’ Free food and admission sure work! And the local paper gave us a very nice article on what we were doing.” According to Condarco, “Google Adwords is the most efficient and cost-effective way to get business.” But both agree that a professional-looking website and a presence on Facebook and other social media sites are vital, as well. And of course, word of mouth advertising never goes out of style. “When you show up with healthy, clean, and happy animals,” Condarco says, “the word is passed around, and yes, word of mouth is still a great way to get business.”
So why not consider starting a petting zoo business? As Condarco says, “Be aware that you are not going to get rich running a petting zoo. But you can make money and pay your bills. You can be happy and live comfortably.” And Erickson reminds us that not all the benefits are tangible: “The biggest reward has to be the smiles on the faces, young and old, when they get the chance to be up close with the animals.”
Have you considered starting a petting zoo business? What are your concerns?
Originally published in Countryside & Small Stock Journal, September/October 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.