While your version of the San Diego Zoo isn't a realistic business venture, you could put together a petting zoo with animals such as sheep, rabbits, goats, deer and ponies. It could be a free-standing zoo, a mobile enterprise or part of a farm operation. Expect start-up costs of $10,000 to $50,000, according to Entrepreneur.com. The first steps must involve safety and health concerns for the animals and humans.
Getting the License
You can't even get a license without having a full- or part-time veterinarian on your staff and liability insurance. The federal license comes from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The fee depends on the number of animals in the exhibit. Go to aphis.usda.gov and click "Resources" then "Learn more about ePermits.” Your state’s wildlife or game office can fill you in on the necessary exhibitor’s permits.
The Key Attractions
No zoo is worth much without animals, and you'll need dealers or breeders to get the gentle types fit for a petting zoo. Industry and trade groups are available for that. For example, to find rabbits, visit the American Rabbit Breeders' Association, Inc. website, arba.net, and click "Find a Breeder" under the "Member Resources" tab. The American Sheep Industry Association's website, sheepusa.org, has options under "Contacts" then "Breed Associations." You will want to limit a petting zoo to appropriate animals. Monkeys, for example, may seem like a cute idea, but they're too active and unpredictable.
Your zoo must have enough land to accommodate patrons, house animals and avoid unsanitary conditions. Contact your land use office for its minimum space requirements. For example, the City of Danbury, Connecticut requires at least five acres. You'll have to know -- not guess -- how much space each animal needs to live comfortably and coexist with guests. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection advises a minimum distance of 100 feet between animals and concession stands or picnic areas. You'll also need a plan for sanitary issues, such as antibacterial cleansing dispensers on the zoo grounds.
Up and Running
Check with the insurer you plan to use for what the required ratio is of attendants to animals. Attendants will have multiple duties, but most will have to supervise how to visitors interact with the animals. The attendants should have at least a high school education or experience working with farm or zoo animals. It's also a plus if any have veterinary technician experience. Before the public arrives, you'll need signage to tell them not to feed the animals and not to bring in any food.