Spokane knows a little something about the tough economics of zoo management.
Walk in the Wild, a zoo that was run by the nonprofit Inland Northwest Zoological Society, shut down in the mid-1990s after 23 years of financial and public relations struggles.
Even with free rent on 81 acres at Mirabeau Point, the zoo’s supporters couldn’t quite make a go of it.
Annual attendance peaked at 100,000 visitors in 1990 and ’91, as new animals – including endangered species such as snow leopards – were added at a rate that sometimes outpaced the construction of new exhibits.
Visitation dropped to 69,000 the following year, when expansion slowed so workers and fundraisers could catch up.
Winters were especially tough, with big bills for hay and other feed.
Snow kept visitors away from a visiting exhibit of robotic dinosaurs during the winter of 1992-’93, leaving the zoo burdened with debt.
Cat Tales, a private zoological park in north Spokane, opened in 1991, drawing some of the support that had gone to Walk in the Wild.
The nonprofit park still operates, with more than 40 wildcats, among other animals.
In the mid-1990s, the zoological society hoped to persuade Spokane County to become a partner in Walk in the Wild. Backers also wanted to ask voters for $10 million for an African exhibit and other improvements.
(Two earlier requests, for $6.8 million in 1978 and $8.6 million in 1980, were defeated at the polls.)
County commissioners said no.
Finally, in 1994, zoo officials announced during a press conference that Walk in the Wild would shut down unless the community raised $1.1 million in a month. The response was tepid.
The zoo shut down the last day of 1995 after supporters failed at a last-ditch effort to raise $2 million to move to Silverwood Theme Park in Idaho.
Many of the animals went to other zoos or private owners. Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, which had loaned the snow leopards to Spokane, made the decision to euthanize the aging pair, both of which had cancer.
Walk in the Wild wasn’t the first zoo to fall on tough times in Spokane.
In 1932, the city closed its zoo at Manito Park, saying the Depression made it impossible to keep the animals fed.
Many of the animals were shot, including three bison and two grizzly bears.