July 24, 2008, 6:28AM

Houston Zoo will offer free admission to poor
Policy change reflects effort to expand access

By ANTHONY WILLIAMS
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Despite record crowds, officials with the Houston Zoo are looking for ways to attract more low-income families.

Starting Aug. 1, families that use the Lone Star card to receive food stamps and other benefits will have unlimited free admission for themselves and up to eight others.

"We're always trying to expand access," said Deborah Cannon, president and CEO of the Houston Zoo, which set an attendance record with 1.6 million visitors in 2007.

On July 1, ticket prices increased by 25 cents for senior citizens and by $1 for children over 2. Adult admission remains at $10.

Since becoming private in 2002, the zoo has allowed five days of free admission each year — a move they thought would attract residents who couldn't afford tickets. The free days were scheduled on holidays, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Memorial Day.

Zoo director Rick Barongi said people at the nearby Texas Medical Center complained about high traffic congestion on the summer free days, which packed the zoo with crowds of 50,000 to 80,000.

"It can be stressful, just too many people," Barongi said, adding that police were needed on Memorial Day to control angry crowds at the zoo gate an hour before closing.

Cannon said they began taking zip code information from visitors on the free days two years ago to compare the information to U.S. Census data. Less than 9 percent of free-day visitors were from low-income areas.

"We're not hitting our target market, and we're creating traffic problems for the Medical Center," Cannon said.

To make matters worse, animals were getting sick after the summer free days because too many people were throwing cotton candy and other items into their pens, zoo officials said. To alleviate the problem, none of the five free days will be scheduled for the summer.
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