The giant panda is the rock star of the captive-animal world, the biggest draw there is, and only four U.S. zoos have them, including Washington's National Zoo. But officials at the animal parks say they spend millions of dollars more than they take in on the rare bear, whose appeal has not boosted visitor numbers and souvenir sales as much as hoped.
After the first rush and long lines to see newly arrived pandas, the zoos' experience is that attendance returns to normal. A cub, such as the one born at the National Zoo last month, will reignite the crowds, but only temporarily.
And the expense of keeping pandas is high: $1 million a year to China to borrow the animals, extensive outlays for research required by the federal import permit, construction expenses for lavish new exhibits and spending on basic care.
The four zoos, Washington, Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego, collectively spent $33 million more on pandas from 2000 to 2003 than they received in revenue from exhibiting them, according to figures compiled by Zoo Atlanta chief executive Dennis W. Kelly. Corporate and individual donations reduced the loss to $4 million, he said.
"I don't know of anybody who wants to pull out. We are all very happy to have pandas," said Donald Lindburg, chief of the panda conservation team at the San Diego Zoo, where a cub was born last week. But one reason zoos hope for births, he acknowledged, is monetary: "It also helps allay some of these costs."
The four zoos agreed to have Kelly assemble data so they can use them to lobby China to lower panda rental fees when they try to renew their leases. U.S. zoo officials were dismayed to read media reports that a zoo in Thailand pays $25,000 a year to borrow pandas from China.
The four zoos exhibit pandas with permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which requires that any revenue that exceeds expenses be plowed into programs to improve the endangered animal's status in China. The stipulation was a reaction to several quick, high-profit, rent-a-panda exhibits at U.S. zoos in the 1980s.
Kenneth B. Stansell, the agency's assistant director for international affairs, said the requirement demonstrates that it was never intended "that pandas be a moneymaking proposition, even a break-even proposition.
"The reality of this has begun to settle into some of the zoos." He said some zoos also are having a harder time raising corporate money than when they began fundraising for pandas during the hot economy of the late 1990s, he said.
The $1 million annual payment to China -- plus a one-time $600,000 payment for each cub born -- goes to conservation programs there. Stansell said zoos are free to negotiate lower payments, as long as they meet the federal requirement of enhancing the animal's status in the wild.
Karen Baragona, acting director of the species conservation program of the World Wildlife Fund, said she is not surprised by zoos' contention that they are losing money. But she said having pandas brings benefits: "What pandas do is burnish the image of a zoo. They confer huge prestige upon a zoo."
Said Kelly: "The short point is that nobody has ever made money on these critters after the first year. By the way, we never intended to, and it's against the law to make money.
"I don't think any of us realized how expensive it would be," he said.
Kelly derived his figures from annual reports that the zoos file with the Fish and Wildlife Service but said he "harmonized" the numbers because zoos use different accounting methods. He would not make the all the figures public because his report is not final -- he intends to add data from 1997 to 1999 and for 2004 -- but he said the four zoos are losing about the same amount.
Until recently, the only pandas in the United States long-term were at the National Zoo, which had a pair -- a gift from China -- on display from 1972 until they died in the 1990s. San Diego acquired a pair in 1996 under a 12-year agreement. The female has had three cubs, but only the first birth generated huge excitement. Lindburg said he noticed that he even received fewer letters from schoolchildren after the first cub.
The three other zoos have 10-year leases. The Atlanta Fulton County Zoo, which got pandas in 1999, made layoffs and raised ticket prices after attendance fell in 2001; attendance has since risen but is less than it was when the animals arrived. The Memphis Zoo got its pair of pandas two years ago. Its attendance is still high, but officials are hoping the opening of another exhibit next year will sustain the numbers.
The National Zoo's pandas, female Mei Xiang and male Tian Tian, went on display in January 2001. Before they arrived, National Zoo officials predicted that they would draw an additional 400,000 visitors a year to the free Smithsonian Institution park, and bring $1.2 million more in food, drink and souvenir sales.
In fact, the number of visitors swelled from 2 million in 2000 to 2.8 million in 2001. Last year, there were 1.8 million. Sales of food, drink and souvenirs nearly doubled -- from $5.5 million in 2000 to $10.3 million in 2001. Last year, sales were $6.3 million, according to Friends of the National Zoo, which raises funds for the zoo and runs the concessions.
FONZ officials blame the drop in part on the weakened economy after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and on school field trips canceled because of bad weather or terror alerts. And they caution that their visitor numbers are less reliable than those of zoos that charge admission. But overall, they say, the pandas drove up the number of visitors -- temporarily.
"Our experience when we first brought either set of pandas coming to the National Zoo was that visitation spiked, big-time," said James M. Schroeder, FONZ executive director. "The other zoos -- Memphis, Atlanta, San Diego -- experienced the same thing. What they then experienced, and we are experiencing, too, is that attendance dropped off to more normal levels."
The National Zoo also has found that among people who come to the zoo, fewer drop by the Panda House: 72 percent said they did this spring, compared with 92 percent in 2001, according to a zoo survey. The Panda House is closed until October so mother and cub can bond, but Tian Tian can be seen in the yard when the weather is not too hot.
Unlike other zoos, the National Zoo raised the money it needed -- $25 million for the Chinese loan fee, insurance, a research program and an education outreach effort for 10 years -- before the pandas arrived, according to Schroeder. The pandas' bamboo is donated, but the zoo's annual operating budget pays for other food, keeper salaries and other expenses associated with the pandas' care. Although Fujifilm is funding much of the construction of a panda habitat, some costs are being covered with federal funds.
Schroeder said FONZ is trying to raise $300,000 more this year to hire research assistants to help the zoo scientists expand studies here and in China.
Pandas "are the most charismatic animal there is," Schroeder said, echoing a message conveyed by officials at the other zoos. "Our goal is to get people to come to the zoo and see these animals and celebrate the animals so we can study them and protect them in the future."
The Panda House is closed until October so mother and cub can bond, but male Tian Tian can be seen in the yard on cooler days.