SALT LAKE CITY — On the typical winter day, Hogle Zoo hardly looks like the sort of place a million people visit each year.
Instead, it mostly looks empty.
On a recent afternoon, a lone peacock rambled through a walkway on the 42-acre grounds as if it owned the place.
While rock-bottom attendance in winter isn't positive for Hogle Zoo's revenues, it is a plus for the hearty visitors who venture there in late winter.
"This is great," said Eden Cowart of Salt Lake City during a visit in late January.
She said she and her 1-year-old daughter, Millie, enjoyed the solitude and privacy of the zoo during winter.
"She gets to run around," Cowart said, indicating that such uncrowded conditions are perfect for her rambunctious daughter to cut loose. This was their second visit to the zoo this winter.
Strolling through the zoo grounds at 2600 Sunnyside Ave. during the winter reveals a zoo of a different flavor — one of solitude and open space everywhere.
The first clue of the quiet, uncrowded nature is the zoo parking lot, where there are only about two dozen cars (as compared to hundreds in spring, summer or fall).
Holly Braithwaite, the zoo spokesperson, says many people don't realize the zoo is open year-round. Attendance at the zoo remains slim until sometime in March, Braithwaite says, when school groups begin visiting the zoo. And while other zoos across the country, including zoos in Memphis and Maryland, have reduced the number of days they're open during the winter, Hogle Zoo has never considered ending its policy of being open all year.
"Hogle Zoo considers itself a year-round community resource, not just a summer attraction," Braithwaite said.
She stressed that the 700-plus animals are at the zoo all year, and since they need daily care by employees, there's no reason to close.
"People do come in the winter," Braithwaite said. "We had over 40,000 guests in December and nearly 12,000 in January. February will likely exceed 20,000."
Would the zoo save money by closing some days in the winter?
It's a fair question, considering that the zoo receives 27 percent of its $8.6 million annual operating budget from public funds.
Braithwaite said Hogle Zoo already downsizes its operations during the winter season, with about 100 employees, as compared to about 250 during the peak summer season. But that the zoo can't ever really shut down.
"The animals live here all year, and they require care every day," said Craig Dinsmore, the zoo's director. "We do reduce the number of employees during the winter months, but those who work year-round are busy with many projects, both within and beyond the zoo. Maintenance, marketing, development, animal care, education, human resources and other departments are busy all year."
He inferred that the poor economy is actually boosting zoo attendance.
"The zoo's attendance has been growing steadily, and we surpassed 1 million guests for the first time ever in 2009," Dinsmore stated. "We believe this is evidence of the 'staycation' phenomenon, with families staying closer to home and looking for value in their recreation. As long as this trend continues, Hogle Zoo will remain open as a year-round resource for all the people of Utah and those who visit our state."
Hogle Zoo's winter gate hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m. through Feb. 28. Once in the gate, visitors can stay until 5:30 p.m. Beginning March 1, that expands to one hour later.
Regular admission costs are $9 for adults, $7 for seniors, $7 for kids 3-12, and children 2 and younger are admitted free of charge.
For more information, visit www.hoglezoo.org or call 801-582-1631.
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