Tacoma petting zoo owner has very personal reason for leveraging everything to 'save the zoo'

The owner of Debbie Dolittle's Indoor Petting Zoo in Tacoma has a deeply personal reason for leveraging everything he has to save the zoo. 

Donny Miller's wife, Debbie, always dreamed of owning an indoor petting zoo and the couple made it happen. Then in 2017, Debbie died of breast cancer. 

“If she was sitting right here next to me right now, I know she’d be like, you can do it, you got this,” said Miller. 

The petting zoo brings in 100,000 people a year. Group events, birthday parties, and school visits all stopped last March when the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

“The only thing we don’t do right now is customers don’t come in," Miller said. "We still have animal feed. Power bills have to be paid. Heat bills. Everything still has to happen. The only thing that’s stopped is income."  

Miller spends $20,000 a month to feed and care for the animals. He dropped another $20,000 to add plexiglass dividers and other measures to make the place safer for customers. The zoo had just reopened for a week in November when the state issued new restrictions. 

“I’m a fighter and I will liquidate every resource I have until I have nothing,” Miller said. 

Every day, he goes deeper into debt, which now tops $200,000. For Miller, he spends many nights awake, wondering how the zoo will survive. He often reflects on his late wife Debbie. 

“If she was sitting right here next to me right now, I know she’d be like, 'You can do it. You got this!'” said Miller.

So to save the petting zoo, he was forced to let go of most of his staff, sell 60 animals, and his 5-acre farm and home. 

Miller is staying hopefully, keeping his love for animals and determination to keep his late wife’s dream from being taken by the pandemic.

“Debbie was a fighter like me. She would have went down fighting just like I am,” Miller said.  

A great way to support Miller and his petting zoo is to sign up for an outdoor experience, where you get to feed the otters and other animals.