San Diego Zoo’s Growth Has Made it Overpriced


Each adult member before now received four coupons good for admission, but this perk has been eliminated — while the price for the Diamond Club (adult) membership has been raised to $156. Another irksome depredation is “bracket creep” for children: Paying $10 less while adults were charged $15 is an altogether different deal than paying $10 less when adults pay $44 (which is the current cost). 

A 2006 comparison with 50 profit and nonprofit zoos and/or aquariums in the United States showed the San Diego Zoo’s single adult admission charge was then more than for any other similar nonprofit institution in the country. In 2006, the Bronx Zoo charged adults $14, children between the ages of 2 and 12 $10, and seniors 65 and over $12 — with Wednesdays as a free day for everybody.

The San Diego Zoo began as a small menagerie of stay-behind animals after the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. By 1917, the menagerie had been moved into a gully of the Cabrillo Canyon just west of the five-acre Indian Village and Painted Desert. Doctor Harry Wegeforth had a talent for raiding the heart and purse strings of San Diegans. Wegeforth insisted that children should always be admitted free, claiming the zoo’s purpose was “to entertain and to educate children.” To finance the zoo, voters in 1934 approved a property tax of two cents for each $100 of assessed real and personal property within the city of San Diego for the exclusive maintenance of zoological exhibits — a tax that in 1998 netted the Zoological Society $3,748,735.

In December 1921, Ellen Browning Scripps donated $9,000 for fencing to enclose grounds and animals, thus allowing the charging of admission fees to everybody (except children, who were always to be admitted free). 

The San Diego Zoo then grew from 32 antiquated animal cages on the east side of Park Boulevard to 99-plus acres from Zoo Drive to the slopes of Cabrillo Canyon on the east.

There are no family memberships at the San Diego Zoo despite the Scripps’ generosity and belief in family. Moreover, memberships are valid for ZIP codes 91900-92899 only. While Los Angeles residents are good to get a membership, Tijuana residents aren’t.

Animals have adapted through eons of evolutionary change: Co-existence is necessary for survival. A hope is that by visiting zoos, children will undergo a process of maturation which will have benefits for us all. 

Doubtless, to be true to life in the wild, polar bears should be allowed to hunt down and devour seals (with the boldest adults and children looking on). Yet, carrots are so much better for polar bear consumption because the bears don’t need to fatten themselves up in order to hibernate in Southern California anyway.

— Richard Thompson
Alumnus 83