Gift Shop Plus Spring 2024
The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens: Where conservation meets retail By Carly McFadden

One California zoo’s mission is front and center in its gift shop.

The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens is the ultimate destination for animal lovers.

Photos courtesy of The Living Desert & Zoo.
The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens Store offers responsible apparel, sustainable kids’ toys and locally crafted goods. Photos courtesy of The Living Desert & Zoo.

Located in California’s Palm Springs area, The Living Desert actively works to conserve desert species by building populations under controlled, protected conditions. The nonprofit zoo is home to more than 500 animals across 150 species, many of which are endangered, in addition to an array of botanicals from around the world.

“The Living Desert offers a diverse and immersive experience for all visitors between engaging events, unforgettable animal encounters such as giraffe feeding — which is my personal favorite — and meeting with rhinos, our curated gift shop, scenic nature and hiking trails, exclusive private tours, petting kraal and endangered species carousel,” said David Vargas, director of The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens Store.


The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens Store aims to round out the customer experience, offering visitors a memento to take home. It has curated a variety of souvenirs, educational materials and everyday products such as mugs and water bottles.

Aligned with the zoo’s overall mission, sustainability is one of the most important considerations when stocking inventory at the gift shop and is a commonality across product categories.

Photos courtesy of The Living Desert & Zoo.

“We are proud to have a brand of responsible apparel — it’s a fair labor-certified and certified organic line. … We are producing this item in the absolute most environmentally responsible way possible,” Vargas said.

The store’s kids’ offerings are similarly sustainable. The majority of its plush animals are made from 100% recycled materials, and many of its toys are made from ocean-bound plastic, which have transformed 100% postconsumer into “imaginative, eco-friendly play toys for kids,” Vargas explained.

Examples of toys and plush at the museum include the Plush Lemur, Safari Toy Set and Sloth Mini Backpack.


The gift shop also partners with local artisans to provide giftables — think coffee, candy, apparel and accessories — that not only encourage sustainable living but also give back to the community where they’re made. These are Vargas’ personal favorites in the shop because they spark conversations between customers while also representing the desert area. “We really tell the story behind these products,” Vargas said.

The zoo’s mission has resonated so deeply with the community that part of the gift shop’s staff is made up of former visitors who were passionate about desert conservation and habitat restoration.

“We have an amazing team that is committed and passionate about being here,” Vargas said. “A few of the team members here started out as visitors and volunteers. They love the space so much, being in a gift shop, because you create that conversation with customers. So these team members definitely enjoy working and equally show excitement about the mission, the sustainability efforts and all our products that we have in the store.”

The zoo’s sustainability mission weaves through every experiential and retail offering. Return visitors are common at the store, Vargas explained, and they are often looking for a way to give back to the zoo’s mission, either through a purchase or by making a roundup donation at the register.

“We want to educate and inspire our guests to take care of our unique and beautiful desert environment,” Vargas said. “We want them to be glad they came to the desert and want to come back into it again.”

Carly McFadden

Carly McFadden is the editorial director of Gift Shop Plus, Stationery Trends and Lawn & Garden Retailer.

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