Jackson Zoo struggles with attendance, staffing, lack of animals

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – Just six people took advantage of the warm, sunny weather to visit the Jackson Zoological Park during the hour or so WLBT was there Thursday morning.

The park, which at one time brought in more than 200,000 visitors a year, was remarkably quiet – and empty – with just the whooping of the gibbons and lemurs filling the air.

Once home to approximately 200 species and hundreds of animals overall, the park on Thursday had numerous empty exhibits, leaving visitors that did come in with far less to see than they would have just a decade ago.

Necropsy reports obtained by 3 On Your Side show that in the last 12 years, more than 500 animals at the West Jackson park have died, been killed or gone missing.

Meanwhile, the zoo has relatively little funding to bring in new exhibits and is no longer accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, meaning it no longer participates in programs that potentially could bring new animals.

The lack of visitors, coupled with the lack of species, is a sign the zoo has seen better days.

However, city leaders are confident the once popular tourist attraction still has a bright future.

Parks and Recreation Director Ison Harris points to Mathan, an American Black Bear cub brought to the park last summer by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

Wildlife officials transported the then-emaciated, injured cub to the zoo for medical care after it was hit by a car and abandoned by its mother.

Today, the 60-pound ball of energy eagerly greets guests as they walk by his cage.

“We’re excited about him, and we’ve actually had some really good conversations on a few other animals that I won’t speak on right now until they actually hit the ground,” he said. “But we’re excited about some possibilities.”

In the last 20 years, the zoo has been on a steady decline, brought about in part by its location, dwindling ticket sales and dwindling revenues.

The last few years have been particularly hard, with the park temporary closing on October 1, 2019, and the Jackson Zoological Society dissolving amid a legal fight with the city.

Prior to that, the mayor and society had gone back and forth over the future of the zoo, with some members of the society hoping to move it to a new location.

In 2018, the society announced that it was studying moving from West Capitol Street to Northeast Jackson in hopes of boosting attendance and revenues. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba came out against the idea, saying it was taking another resource from the West Jackson community.

Months later, the zoo director resigned after she admitted to using state bond money to prop up the zoo amid falling finances.

“For a while, we were actually wondering if we were gonna get a paycheck,” Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation over Zoos Dave Wetzel said. “For a while, we had delayed paychecks. Now, we get paid every two weeks. It’s wonderful.”

When the city finally took over, the zoo was only supposed to be closed for a matter of months. However, it did not reopen for nearly a year, with the city being unable to reopen until it obtained a temporary exhibitor’s permit from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Once the society disbanded, ownership of the animals went to the city, giving it the sole ownership of the zoo and its attractions.

However, the society surrendered its Class C exhibitor’s license, meaning Jackson could not open the park to visitors until it obtained its own.

An empty fishing cat exhibit at the Jackson Zoo.(WLBT)

“We had to go through the process of getting a USDA accreditation,” Harris said. “And there was a long period of things we had to do. So, that was a real challenge.”

The park reopened in August 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the zoo has yet to rebound in terms of attendance. In the last two years, just 45,000 people have visited. By comparison, in 2018, approximately 74,000 people attended. Back in 2003, approximately 180,000 went through the gates.

“We’ll get back there,” said Wetzel. “It’s getting the staffing we need to stabilize, getting them here so we can bring more animals in, getting a marketing campaign for the zoo so that people know it’s open. It’s incredible how many places I go to, [where they say], ‘Oh, I didn’t even know you reopened.’ Well, golly gee, it’s only been two years.”

“It’s getting all those parts and pieces together and making the connections we need to make,” he said. “We’ll get back to 200,000. We’ll get over 200,000.”

Harris says that since the city took over, the main effort has been focused on stabilizing the zoo. He explained when Jackson came on workers were unsure how long they would continue to have jobs.

“We were able to give employees a home, for sure,” he said. “We’ve given them the ability to have insurance, those types of things, to kind of reassure them that we have a stable staffing.”

Employees initially were signed on as contract workers, with the hopes they would be hired by ZoOceanarium, a firm the mayor hoped to bring on the manage the park.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba had been in talks with the international company for several years about taking over management. However, no agreement was ever met. In April 2021, the firm pulled out of negotiations months after members of the Jackson City Council grilled the firm – and the mayor – about the proposed contract.

One of the biggest concerns was raised by Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay, who asked why the agreement did include provisions requiring ZoOceanarium to obtain AZA accreditation.

The society gave up accreditation years earlier due to financial instability.

“Our main problem was never animal care. It was never safety issues or anything like that,” said former Jackson Zoological Society President Eric Stracener. “It was always about funding and the lack of predictable financial support for the zoo during the time I was there.”

He said AZA accreditation is often considered the gold standard for accreditation and would allow the zoo to participate in programs like its Species Survival Program.

Shortly after ZoOceanarium pulled out, the city council approved bringing zoo employees on as city staffers, making them eligible for benefits.

Even with those benefits, staffing at the facility still remains short. An October USDA inspection report showed the park had just five of 10 animal keepers working, while five other positions were “functionally vacant due to personnel issues or true vacancies.”

“As a result of the staffing shortage, employees are spending all day doing basic feeding and husbandry tasks, while proactive maintenance programs, vegetation removal, and preventive pest control are not being completed,” the report stated. It added that upper-level zoo management also was involved in basic animal care, to the detriment of their other duties.

“When she was doing the inspection that day, I was doing two peoples’ jobs,” Wetzel recalled. “So, I feel it every day. Right now, I’m filling in as a keeper at least five days a week. That’s down from seven. So, we’ve made substantial progress.”

Harris said two more keepers were being brought on. However, the city did not meet the USDA deadline to fill all its keeper positions by February 1.

Harris said the city has been communicating with USDA about its efforts to address deficiencies and said Jackson is not in danger of losing its license.

“The reality is we’re interviewing people, we’re posting those positions, we’re trying to get them through the process as soon as possible,” he said. “But let’s be really clear, you’re talking about animal care. We just can’t hire any and everybody just because they apply.”

Part of the problem is salaries.

Records obtained by WLBT earlier this year show keepers earn just under $32,000 a year. The highest-paid person on staff earns around $69,900 annually, records show.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics show the median salary for zoologists and wildlife biologists with just a bachelor’s degree is $64,650 a year, or $31.08 an hour.

Harris says once the zoo increases attendance, the city likely will have the money to offer pay raises.

However, due to a lack of ticket sales, the city has had to dip into its general fund to keep the zoo afloat. In 2021, audits show $4.8 million in city revenue was transferred to the Parks Department, with most of that going to supplement the zoo.

The city also has been slow in offering jobs to qualified workers. “We’ve gotten some lists in [and] a lot of times people have already found jobs,” Wetzel said. “So, by the time we get that list, half of them aren’t available anymore. So, we just keep plugging away.”

While the city works to fill positions, Wetzel said efforts are also under way to fill empty exhibit spaces. During 3 On Your Side’s numerous exhibits that once were once home to some of the zoo’s most popular attractions were empty.

A sign warns visitors not to feed the animals outside the empty giraffe exhibit at the Jackson...
A sign warns visitors not to feed the animals outside the empty giraffe exhibit at the Jackson Zoological Park.(WLBT)

In December, Knox, a reticulated giraffe that was a fixture at the park, passed away. Necropsy reports showed that the animal’s death was due to kidney stones and was age related.

In all, 23 animals died at the zoo during the previous calendar year, including two red river hogs, three red ruffed lemurs and a red wolf. The wolf died of cancer, according to the reports, while the lemurs’ deaths were classified as “neonatal.” The cause of death for the hogs, meanwhile, was undetermined.

Eight deaths that year were said to be age-related. Six of the 23 animal deaths in 2021 were also age-related. Another animal, a Grevy’s Zebra, died of trauma. However, Wetzel said that death, too, was age-related.

Animal deaths at Jackson Zoo by year Total Number Age-related only cause
2011 63 3
2012 71 2
2013 48 2
2014 77 10
2015 59 4
2016 44 0
2017 42 7
2018 32 2
2019 36 0
2020 27 4
2021 21 6
2022 23 8

“I don’t know how to say this on camera,” he said. “She was an elderly animal, and he was feeling frisky, and it was too much for her.”

Wetzel said numbers reported in the last two years are not unusual amounts. “One of the hardest things for any zoo person to get used to is that absolutely everything you touch is going to die at some point,” he said. “I will cry like a baby if my dog dies at home, but zoo animals are different. If you let every one of them break you up, you’re not going to be in it 40 years.”

We reached out to several other similar-sized zoos asking about information on their animal deaths. None would share details. We also reached out to USDA and AZA seeking that information and were told they did not compile it.

Whether a large number or not, the deaths have taken a toll on the park’s overall population. Numerous exhibits that used to house animals are now empty. The former orangutan exhibit is now home to the Asiatic Black Bear, while the black bear’s former exhibit is empty. The exhibit between that and the giraffe’s has been unoccupied for years, as evidenced by trees growing in the middle of it.

Two bird exhibits at the Jackson Zoo wrapped by plastic tarp.
Two bird exhibits at the Jackson Zoo wrapped by plastic tarp.(WLBT)

In the bird run area, additional cages are empty, while two are surrounded by plastic tarp. At least one of those covered exhibits still had a bird, which could be seen perched on a branch between the plastic sheets.

The exhibit that previously housed the fishing cat – a wild cat found in Southwest Asia according to Animalia.bio – was also empty. On the other side of that exhibit several cages that used to house wild cats had been expanded to house Mathan.

Harris says efforts are in the works to fill those remaining exhibits and bringing in more amenities. Projects also are on tap to enclose some open exhibits to better protect animals that could fall victim to predation.

In 2022, three flamingos were killed by predation, while four black-necked swans went missing, also presumed killed by predation.

“We’re actually doing fundraising to fence in the flamingo yard, so we can create a kind of exploratory that you can walk through and feed birds and different things,” Harris said. “We would love to create a new discovery zone up front in the zoo, again to give you more interaction with animals.”

“We have multiple fundraisers geared this year that we didn’t have last year,” he added. “And we feel real confident that we can move in the right and positive direction to make sure our zoo is viable.”

As for the zoo’s location, the city also has taken efforts to improve drivers’ commutes to the park, with a portion of West Capitol currently being repaved. Many people have raised concerns about the zoo’s surroundings, including the number of dilapidated homes along the roadway, as well as the condition of the road itself.

The council awarded a $5.9 million contract to rebuild the roadway between I-220 and Prentiss Road in early 2021. Work on the mill and overlay are ongoing.

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