How to Start a Petting Zoo
A petting zoo can be a fulfilling and profitable business, bringing joy to kids and families while teaching them about animals. But here’s the thing: running a petting zoo isn’t just about cute animals and happy kids. There’s a lot to consider, from local rules to animal care, to how you’ll keep the place running smoothly.
But don’t sweat it! This guide will walk you through the essentials and answer some common questions to help you start right..
A petting zoo provides a facility where children and adults can come to pet and feed animals such as goats, ponies, llamas, chickens, rabbits, sheep, or other animals that are friendly for a fee. This business can be stationary, mobile, or both, as some petting zoo businesses offer mobile services for birthday parties or other events.
While the thought of owning a petting zoo may sound like a dream, know that there is a lot of work to care for the animals, such as vaccinations, proper feeding, constant cleaning, etc.
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Petting zoos have traditionally been operated within large zoos, but small petting zoos on farms or mobile petting zoos are also becoming popular.
The petting zoo industry is expected to generate $83 million in 2023, and this industry largely falls under the broader category of “agritainment” or agricultural entertainment. This is an industry that combines farming with fun activities for the public. Think pumpkin patches, apple picking, and, yes, petting zoos. These businesses are popular in both rural and urban settings because, let’s face it, who doesn’t love adorable animals?
The zoo and aquarium industry has faced challenges in recent years due to reduced government funding and fluctuating attendance. However, opportunities exist for small petting zoos that cater to families and schools. Focusing on hands-on education, animal care, and community engagement can set your business apart.
Steps To Start A Petting Zoo
To launch a petting zoo, you will need to make plans for funding, facilities, inventory, permitting, staffing, and more. Let’s go over the important steps here:
Step 1: Assess the Market
So you’ve got the dream, the vision, and the passion to start a petting zoo. Before you jump in, it’s important to know if there’s enough interest in your community for a business like this. Starting a petting zoo can be a big investment of both time and money, so you’ll want to make sure that it’s something people actually want. Opening any business is a bit of a gamble, but you can tilt the odds in your favor with good research, and that’s why we start with market research.
A few methods that you can use to measure the interest and demand in your area include:
Customer research: It’s a good idea to start by conducting market research to give valuable insights into your potential customers and what they are looking for in a petting zoo. The largest market for petting zoos are families with children nine and younger. You can find out how many people fit that demographic in your community by researching the Census Bureau’s website.
If you live in a tourist area, you can also work with your local tourism bureau or economic development office to get statistics on the number of visitors to your area.
Study your competitors: Next, you will want to research your competitors to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing what your competitors are doing can give you a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. You can do this by looking at their website, social media, or visiting their facility. By doing this, you’ll have a better grasp of what you’ll need to offer to compete with them successfully. If there are no competitors, don’t automatically assume the market is wide open. There may not have been enough customers to support others from trying.
Use social media: Use social media platforms to run polls or ask questions. This not only measures interest but also helps spread the word about your potential business. You can also create polls or surveys on social media to ask potential customers what they would like to see in your petting zoo.
Get feedback from the community: Another great way to research demand is to get feedback from the community. This can include talking to local schools and children-focused organizations. By getting out there and talking to people, you’ll have a better understanding of what people are looking for in a petting zoo.
Step 2: Write a Business Plan
After you’ve done your homework and found out there’s interest in a petting zoo in your community, it’s time to begin crafting a business plan. Crafting a thorough business plan takes work, but it’s an essential step in making your petting zoo dream real. It helps you think through key parts of your business.
Think of this plan as a roadmap. It lays out how you’ll get from point A, having an idea, to point B, running a successful petting zoo. Plus, if you need a loan, banks are going to want to see this plan. It shows you’ve thought things through and are serious about your business.
A few sections of the plan to focus on include:
When you’re writing about the market, you’re basically answering one question for the lender: Why will people come to your zoo? Dive into who your customers are and what they want. If you did your research, you already know there’s interest. Now, show how you’ll meet that demand better than anyone else. Maybe you’ve got unique animals, or maybe you plan to offer educational programs that schools will love. Whatever it is, make it clear why your petting zoo is a solid bet.
Lenders pay a lot of attention to who’s running the show. They want to know the owners and key staff have the skills and experience to make this work. Include bios and highlight any relevant experience, like working with animals or running another business. The point is to show the lender that you and your team have the chops to make this petting zoo a success.
Your choice of location can make or break your petting zoo. Lenders know this, so you’ll want to explain why you’ve chosen your specific spot. Maybe it’s close to schools for field trips, or maybe it’s easily accessible from the highway. Highlight factors like foot traffic, accessibility, and any other perks that make your location a good fit for a petting zoo.
This is the section lenders will look over the most. You’ll need to provide forecasts for income, costs, and profit. Be as realistic as possible. Lenders are good at sniffing out numbers that don’t add up. Make sure you understand every number you put down because you’ll likely need to explain how you arrived at those figures.
Before showing this plan to any lender, get another pair of eyes on it. Someone with experience, like a business owner or an accountant, can provide valuable insights. They might spot potential issues you didn’t see, giving you a chance to fix them before you sit down with the lender.
Related: How to write a business plan
Step 3: Source Funding
So you’ve confirmed there’s demand for your petting zoo, and you have a business plan. The next important step is securing the money to actually start your business. Making sure you have the funds upfront is important because without money, well, nothing else happens. You can’t buy animals, secure land, or even get the right permits without some cash on hand.
Securing funding can be a tough part of getting your petting zoo off the ground, but it’s also one of the most important. Let’s talk about where that money can come from.
Personal savings: The first place most people look is their own bank account. If you’ve got enough saved up to cover all your startup costs, that’s fantastic. However, personal savings often fall short. In such cases, you’ll have to explore other options.
Lenders: Getting a bank loan is a common approach to funding a petting zoo. Banks will generally ask you to put up 15% to 25% of your own money toward the total cost. They’ll also want to see a good credit score and some kind of collateral, like property. If a bank thinks lending to you is considered a bit too risky, they might go for a Small Business Administration (SBA) or United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan guarantee, which can make it easier for you to get that loan.
Friends and family: Another option is to turn to the people who believe in you the most: your friends and family. However, mixing business and personal relationships can get messy. To avoid any confusion or hard feelings down the line, put any agreements in writing. Be clear about whether the money is a gift, a loan, or an investment.
Microloans: If you find you only need a small amount of money or can’t secure a traditional loan, a microloan might be the way to go. These are smaller loans, typically up to $150,000, often accompanied by business training. They can be particularly useful if you’re new to running a business and could use some extra guidance.
Investors: Investors can be another avenue. The family entertainment sector is a growing industry, and investors are looking for investment opportunities in this sector. Petting zoos can be a good option for investors who are looking for a fun and rewarding investment.
Step 4: Register the Business
Setting up a petting zoo requires several official steps to ensure that the business is legal, including forming a business structure, registering a business name, and obtaining necessary licenses and permits.
Choose a business structure: First things first, you’ll need to decide on a business structure. The structure you choose will have an impact on your taxes, paperwork, and how much of your personal assets are at risk if the business runs into trouble. The main types to consider are:
- Sole proprietorship: This is the simplest and least expensive way to start a business. You’re the boss, and the business is essentially you. The downside is that your personal assets, like your home and savings, can be at risk if the business gets into financial or legal trouble.
- General partnership: If you’re starting the petting zoo with someone else, you might go for a partnership. Like a sole proprietorship, it’s relatively easy and cheap to set up, but you’re both personally liable for the business.
- Corporation: This is a more complex setup and involves more paperwork and staying on top of administrative requirements. But it does offer strong protection for your personal assets.
- Limited Liability Company (LLC): An LLC is often considered a mix of a corporation and a sole proprietorship. It provides liability protection but is easier to set up and run than a corporation.
Considering the liabilities involved in having live animals and public interactions, an LLC or corporation might be your best bet for better asset protection.
Related: Comparison of business structures
Forming an LLC sounds complicated and expensive, but using an entity formation service guides you through the process so you know it was done right.
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Business name registration: After registering the business structure, you may need to register your business name. This process will vary depending on what business structure you pick. Sole proprietors and partnerships will often be required to register a “Doing Business As” (DBA), while corporations and LLCs register with the state during the formation process.
During this time, it’s also a good idea to check if the name you want is available as a web domain, even if you’re not ready to set up a website yet.
Obtain business licenses and permits: The types of licenses and permits you’ll need can vary significantly depending on your location. Since each state has different rules, you’ll need to check with your state and local government to find out what’s required.
Starting with licensing related to petting zoos specifically, a Class C Exhibitor’s License will be needed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Depending on the types of animals on display, additional permits may also be required.
An animal welfare license is often required for petting zoos that house animals. This license is issued by the state government and ensures that the petting zoo is meeting certain animal welfare standards.
In addition, there will be a few general business licenses and permits needed. A few of these may include a sales tax permit and an Employer Identification Number.
Step 5: Acquire Property & Set Up the Zoo
You’ve navigated the maze of funding and legal requirements, and now you’re standing at the doorstep of making your dream tangible. The location you pick will set the stage for your petting zoo, and the buildings and animals you choose will become the stars of the show.
Your petting zoo location should be convenient for families, so it’s best to not be too far out in a rural area. If you are going to run a mobile petting zoo, you’ll need to determine how far you’re willing to travel with your animals to choose your service area.
The facilities should include level terrain for safe walking, bathroom facilities, and a concessions area.
Once the property is secured, construction can begin. Depending on your business plan, this might involve building animal shelters, visitor facilities, fences, and other structures. Remember, each structure should meet the specific needs of the animals it will house. For example, different animals require different types of fencing for their safety and the safety of your visitors.
Step 6: Hire Staff
Depending on the scale of your zoo, employees may be needed. From animal caretakers, customer service representatives or maintenance staff, there are several roles for employees to play in a zoo. Before diving into the hiring pool, there are some legal steps you need to square away as an employer.
These typically include:
Obtaining an Employer Identification Number (EIN): This is a unique number assigned by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that you’ll need for tax filing and reporting purposes.
Employment eligibility verification: Employers must verify an employee’s eligibility to work in the U.S. You’ll need to complete Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, for each new hire.
State reporting: Each state has different requirements for reporting new hires. Generally, employers must report newly hired and re-hired employees to a state directory within 20 days of their hire or rehire date.
Workers’ compensation: Most states require businesses with employees to carry workers’ compensation insurance, which covers medical costs and lost wages if an employee is injured on the job.
Understanding labor laws: Familiarize yourself with federal and state labor laws, including minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping, and youth employment standards.
Related: State guides for hiring an employee
Step 7: Create a Marketing Strategy
With the steps winding down, you’re almost ready to open the gates and welcome guests to your petting zoo. Now, it’s time to get the word out.
One effective way to market your business is through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. These platforms allow you to post pictures of your animals and upcoming events, and they’re a great way to connect with local families. Additionally, creating a website with key details like your location, hours, and pricing can give you a professional edge.
Don’t forget about the traditional methods like putting up flyers in community centers or taking out ads in local newspapers. It’s also a good idea to offer opening-day specials or partnership deals with schools, daycares, community centers, and local businesses to drum up interest.
Also, claim your Google Business Profile and list on platforms like Yelp or TripAdvisor to boost your visibility.
Step 8: Prepare to Open!
You’re nearing the finish line, but there are some final steps you need to address to make sure your petting zoo is set to open smoothly. Every business will have different needs, but here’s some common items that you shouldn’t overlook:
Business insurance: This is not optional; you need to have liability insurance to protect your business in case of accidents or property damage. We recommend getting at least three insurance quotes, including local insurance agents and online providers like Coverwallet or Hiscox to get the best coverage and price.
Business bank account: Open a separate account exclusively for your business transactions. This makes tax time a whole lot easier.
Ticketing and pricing system: Decide how you’ll handle admissions. Will it be pay-per-entry, or will you offer multi-visit passes? Set up a system that’s easy for customers to navigate. Solutions like ZooEasy and Centaman can help not only manage ticketing but also manage animal records, breeding programs, and more.
Industry associations: Consider joining groups like the Association of Zoos and Aquarium Association, which can offer valuable resources and networking opportunities.
Grand opening: Plan a memorable grand opening. Promote it well in advance and consider offering special deals or activities to attract a large crowd.
Common Questions When Starting A Petting Zoo
How much does it cost to start a petting zoo?
The total upfront costs to start a petting zoo can range from $50,000 to $150,000 for small- to medium-sized operations.
Buying the land for your petting zoo is one of the most significant expenses you’ll incur. Depending on the location and size, land can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 or more. It’s important to ensure the land is zoned appropriately for a petting zoo before making any commitments.
Preparing the property by adding fencing, enclosures, shelters, and walkways could add another $15,000 to $30,000.
Livestock like goats, pigs, ponies, and chickens will likely total $10,000 to $25,000.
You’ll also need to budget for supplies like feed, brushes, and toys, which can cost $5,000.
Required permits, licenses, and insurance will cost several thousand dollars upfront.
Marketing expenses to promote your opening, like print ads, flyers, and a website, may be $3,000 to $5,000 initially.
Taking all these into account, the financial hurdle is substantial but manageable with careful planning and budgeting. Make sure to do thorough research and prepare for all the costs involved in starting your petting zoo.
How profitable is a petting zoo?
Profits for a petting zoo can vary widely based on factors like location, the variety of animals, and the experiences offered.
A common formula for estimating profit in the petting zoo industry is to calculate the revenue per visitor, which might range from $10 to $20 for entry fees, additional activities, and merchandise sales.
So, if your zoo attracts 100 visitors a day, operates 200 days a year, and we go with $15 per visitor, the resulting annual revenue would be $300,000 (100 visitors x $15 x 200 days).
Now, let’s consider expenses. Animal care could cost about $30,000 a year. Employee wages could be another $60,000 annually for a small team. Add to that utility costs, insurance, and maintenance, which might total another $50,000. So, the total annual expenses could be around $140,000.
So, depending on various factors, you could be looking at an annual profit of $160,000. Of course, these are rough estimates, and actual figures will vary, but they give you a ballpark idea of the profit potential.
What skills are helpful in running a petting zoo?
Running a petting zoo requires a unique blend of skills. Here are some of the most important ones:
Animal care knowledge: This is critical as you will be responsible for the health and well-being of the animals in your zoo. You should understand animal behavior, nutrition, and handling techniques, as well as signs of common diseases.
Business acumen: Running a petting zoo is not just about caring for animals, but also operating a successful business. Skills in areas such as finance, marketing, and operations are crucial.
Customer service skills: A petting zoo is a people-oriented business. You’ll need to interact with customers, answer their questions, and ensure they have a positive experience. Good interpersonal and communication skills are key.
Problem-solving skills: Things won’t always go as planned. The ability to quickly identify problems and devise effective solutions is very valuable.
Physical stamina: Working with animals can be physically demanding. You might need to lift heavy feed bags, clean enclosures, and be on your feet for much of the day.
Patience: Animals don’t always behave as expected, and visitors, especially children, will often need clear and repeated instructions. Patience will definitely be a virtue in this line of work.
Passion for animals: This might seem obvious, but a genuine love for and interest in animals can make the hard work involved in running a petting zoo more rewarding and enjoyable.
Knowledge of safety regulations and procedures: Ensuring the safety of both the animals and visitors is paramount in this type of business. You need to understand and adhere to all relevant safety guidelines.
Risk management: Understanding potential risks and how to mitigate them is important in a petting zoo where interaction between animals and humans occurs regularly.
Educational skills: Often, petting zoos have an educational component, teaching visitors about the animals and their care. Being able to effectively convey this information is a valuable skill.
What is the NAICS code for a petting zoo?
The NAICS code for a petting zoo is 712130, which is classified under Zoos and Botanical Gardens.
The NAICS code (North American Industry Classification System) is a federal system to classify different types of businesses for the collection and reporting of statistical data.