On a sunny day in the Roanoke Valley, Sarah Graninger took Payton and Parker, two kids she's watched during the summer, up to the Mill Mountain Zoo.
"We just like getting out," said Graninger. "We just like exploring and this is a great place to do it."
Many other visitors also spent their Thursday at the zoo. It was a welcome sight for zoo staff members who say not every day has been quite so busy.
"It has rained the entire summer," said Sarah Brooks, Marketing Development Associate for Mill Mountain Zoo. "And that has hurt our attendance."
Brooks says many people don't realize how big of an issue that is. It takes about $850,000 each year to operate the zoo and take care of the animals. Roughly 40 percent of the zoo's income comes directly from visitors and admission fees.
Because Mill Mountain Zoo is private, there's no pot of taxpayer money that can bail them out. So the staff has had to get creative -- first with a media / ad campaign they launched in the spring.
"Top of mind awareness is an encouragement for them to come up to the zoo and enjoy nature and the beauty of this spot," said Ray Correia, Executive Director of the Mill Mountain Zoo.
They say that campaign has brought in about $120,000 -- some of that from animal lovers, $364 from kids at a local school.
"It was very affirming and heartwarming to know that Roanoke City -- and not just Roanoke, but people from all over the region were willing to contribute to their zoo," said Brooks. "They do feel it's their zoo and they want to make sure it stays."
The zoo also started hosting special fundraisers after hours this summer like its "Muzic on the Mountain" series Sunday nights. Brooks says while the crowds haven't necessarily been huge, they've made money at each of those events. She adds that the people who do come really seem to like being there in the evening when the animals tend to be more active.
"Everyone who has come up to the zoo has said wow, we didn't even know it was like this," said Brooks. "So it is a very different experience."
This upcoming Sunday is the final Muzic on the Mountain event. Then on September 8, they'll host the biggest event they've done all year called "Blues at the Zoo", which will feature wings, micro brews, and three live bands. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door for adults and $5 for kids.
They're hopeful it will help cure the financial blues they've experienced this summer and keep the zoo clawing forward -- not just for the animals, but for people like Payton.
"We haven't seen the otters all summer, so we're pretty excited about that," said Payton. "And Bo [the wolverine] is actually doing something today, so that's pretty cool."
For more information about events at the zoo, visit http://www.exemplum.com/mmzoo/SitePages/index.aspx