Despite Tough Economy, Zoo's Business Roars in April

By Don Cuddy
Standard-Times Staff Writer

NEW BEDFORD — A multitude of sounds fill the air at the Buttonwood Park Zoo but the sweetest, to those who oversee its operation, is the jingle of coins. A record 33,521 people visited the zoo in the month of April.
“April was the biggest month since the first two months after the zoo opened,” said zoo director Bill Langbauer, who believes that increased attendance is largely due to word-of-mouth advertising but that the zoo’s success is no accident.
“The zoo is being rediscovered,” he said. “They essentially bulldozed this place eight years ago. It’s taken a while, but more people are figuring out that it’s really a little gem.”
The economic downturn may have boosted attendance in April with people looking for outings closer to home, Dr. Langbauer said, “but that doesn’t account for increased attendances every year over the past three years.”
David Prentiss is the executive director of the Buttonwood Park Zoological Society, the nonprofit that supports the zoo’s mission. He said he believes that attendance is up because the zoo has become so attractive.
“Most cities this size don’t even have a zoo, never mind one of this quality,” he said. “When officials from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association visited us they described Buttonwood as one of the finest small zoos in the United States.”
Established in 1894, Buttonwood is the twelfth oldest zoo in the country. The oldest, Philadelphia, opened just 20 years earlier.
On Sunday afternoon, a procession of families, the majority with strollers, passed through the zoo’s front doors.
Tanya Montgomery was visiting with her grandchildren Aliyah, 5 and Asia, 2. It was not their first visit.
“It’s easily walkable for kids this age,” Ms. Montgomery said. “It’s close by and it’s reasonably priced.”
The zoo’s appeal extends far beyond New Bedford, as Chris and Sheryl Foster from Hanover can attest.
“We drove over an hour to get here,” Mr. Foster said as he watched the elephants. The Fosters came with their three children and Kevin Dupuis, a family friend. “We’ve been here a couple of times before. We could have gone somewhere else, but we like the price and it’s a good quality zoo.”
Creating a family-friendly atmosphere has been a key component of the zoo’s effort to encourage return visitors, Dr. Langbauer said.
“We want families to come back regularly and the key to that has been our staff,” he said. “You can stop anyone to ask questions, and they will take the time to talk with you.”
Providing a family-friendly destination is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the zoo’s overall mission, Dr. Langbauer said.
Equally important are conservation and education programs which will continue to expand, he said.
“We do conservation projects both locally and internationally, so when you come here you are not only having a good time but you are supporting animals throughout the world. We are also doing more after-hours events. This is the Year of the Frog, so we are planning a Frog Aid concert here in August.”
May 12, 2008
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