ASHEBORO — Many state agencies, plagued by economic problems, don't have much to celebrate this year. But at the North Carolina Zoo, things are booming.
Attendance at the wildlife park in Asheboro hit a 13-year high for the year ending June 30, even with sweltering temperatures much of the month. Across the nation, other zoos reported drops in June, particularly those affected by the heat wave.
North Carolina officials offered a variety of reasons for the zoo's great year, during which 749,627 visitors came through the gates. The zoo has opened the popular Lemur Island and giraffe-feeding exhibits. It has targeted its marketing through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And it stands to gain when money problems keep families from taking longer, more expensive vacations.
Rod Hackney, the zoo's public relations director, said the park has benefited from day trips.
Linda Cendes, spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, said, "People are staying closer to home and looking for activities that are affordable."
The zoo is gaining while others have been stagnant or seen drops. Zoos in Milwaukee, Wis., Memphis, Tenn., and Fort Worth, Texas, all reported dips in traffic from a year ago. Rainy and hot weather were likely factors, officials said.
But in this state, visitors did not seem to be deterred.
"We came because it's supposed to be one of the biggest and best," said Michelle Ingel, who was at the zoo with her children last week. "The animals here are more active, not as caged up."
Ni-Kella Mason, a day camper with a Greensboro group at the zoo last week, said she always has fun at the zoo. "It's cool, and I get to see lots of animals I've never seen."
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which funds the zoo's salaries and utilities, took a 4 percent budget cut this year. Due to years of budget cuts, the zoo has had to work to balance expenses and priorities, Hackney said.
Some attractions, such as a wildlife movie theater and a carousel for children, have separate fees to boost park revenue. The zoo hasn't had any layoffs but has cut its maintenance and uniform budgets.
The zoo's first exhibits debuted in 1974 and featured giraffes, zebras and ostriches. The park now is home to more than 1,100 animals and 40,000 plants from Africa and North America.
Looking ahead, the zoo is hoping to expand with a large exhibit of animals and plants from Asia. A feasibility study for that expansion was launched last week.
If the project succeeds, it could bring hundreds of new jobs to the area, said David Jones, the zoo's director. Jones credits last month's high attendance in part to the park's most recent exhibits. He said expansion will not only bring more visitors to the zoo but also will improve the community as well.
"When you're bringing in visitors, you're bringing in money to restaurants and gas stations and hotels," Jones said.
Earlier this year, the zoo added 600 acres of forestland, making it the largest land-area zoo in the nation at more than 2,000 acres, Jones said.
One of the other zoos seeing an attendance increase - Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C. - has worked hard to add new attractions each year. The Riverbanks zoo added a train in 2008, a climbing wall in 2009 and a kangaroo exhibit this year that allows visitors to walk around with the animals.
The North Carolina Zoo's additions this year - Lemur Island and the Acacia Station giraffe-feeding platform - are proving popular.
Surrounded by a shallow moat and filled with dead-looking trees, Lemur Island is home to red-ruffed and ring-tailed lemurs. The small primates scurry up trees, puff out their chests and shout lemur calls to each other. The guttural shrieks can be heard throughout the zoo.
Ten-year-old Faith Harrison, with the Greensboro camp group, described lemur dialogue as "freaky."
"I didn't know they did that," she said.
Acacia Station costs $3, but that hasn't stopped most families from feeding mulberry leaves to giraffes like 2-year-old Asha. The animal comes to the platform and will feast for hours, her nearly 22-inch tongue grabbing leaves.
Five-year-old Brody Coffey said the giraffes were his favorite part of the zoo.
Well, that and the zebras.
"We saw the zebra's butt," he said.
Most visitors tend to look for prettier attractions. But whatever the reason for the crowds, zoo officials are just glad they keep coming.
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