The Nocturnal House at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo has always been in the dark. But now the zoo plans to turn the lights off. Because of budget troubles, the zoo plans to close the popular Nocturnal House, which houses 61 animals, from bats to sloths and even armadillos. The closure date hasn't been set but...

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The Nocturnal House at the Woodland Park Zoo has always been in the dark.

But now the zoo plans to turn the lights off.

Because of budget troubles, the zoo plans to close the popular Nocturnal House, which houses 61 animals, from bats to sloths and even armadillos. The closure date hasn’t been set but is expected to be announced in the next month.

Michael Chen was lined up at the exhibit Sunday with his family because he heard the Nocturnal House was closing. “It’s one of our favorites,” he said. “It’s a really unusual exhibit. You never know what you’re going to see.”

About a dozen people gathered near the entrance to the exhibit Sunday to protest its closure. Organizer Scott Gifford posted the closure on Facebook.

“It’s not closed ’til it’s closed,” said Gifford, who hopes his organized effort will prompt the zoo to change its mind.

“It’s always been one of my favorite exhibits. You see creatures you don’t normally get to see,” he said. “I think it’s an important part of the zoo’s educational mission.”

He said since he posted the notice of the closure on Facebook, his page has been visited 13,000 times.

John Bito showed up because he read about it on Facebook. He was angry that at the same time the zoo is closing its nocturnal exhibit it’s building a new zoo store. “This is our park,” he said. “We need to hold the Zoo Society accountable.

Diane Duthweiler, a member of the Phinney Community Council, also protested the closure. “They spend money on things that make money. This is a perfect wintertime exhibit.”

Zoo President and CEO Deborah Jensen said the zoo had to make tough financial decisions to cut $800,000. It plans to lay off 12 employees and close the Nocturnal House. The exhibit was one of the biggest energy users at the zoo and the animals will be easy to move when the exhibit closes. Some of the animals will remain at the zoo, and some will go to other zoos.

Closing the exhibit will save the zoo $300,000, said zoo officials. The zoo’s operating budget is $30 million a year.

“It was a very hard decision to make,” Jensen said. “None of us are happy about it.”

Last year, the zoo also suspended payments to employee retirement accounts and required employees to take unpaid furloughs, said zoo spokesman David Schaefer. This year, the zoo is restoring the payments to the retirement accounts and avoiding furloughs. Still, cuts are necessary, he said.

Half of the money needed to operate the zoo comes from admission and concessions, said Schaefer, acknowledging that the new zoo store will help the zoo make money. One-third of the zoo’s revenue comes from city and county government. The rest comes from donations.

The zoo has posted details about the closure on its Web site in a memo to zoo members and the community.

“Like everyone else in the region and the nation, Woodland Park Zoo is impacted by the difficult economy,” the memo said. “The night exhibit is very expensive to operate. It is an older building with very high operating costs. Closing the night exhibit emerged as the best of a set of unpleasant choices.”

Visitors crowded the Nocturnal House on Sunday, many because they’d heard of the impending closure.

Two men walked through the zoo, carrying a stick with plastic bats dangling from them.

“It’s a bummer. At least we got to see it one last time,” said Brad Nakashima, who was at the zoo Sunday with his family. “It’s unfortunate. This was the best time ever.”

Dina Karant said it is her daughter’s favorite exhibit. “It’s upsetting,” she said. “I think it’s a great educational exhibit and it’s a shame. I hope they can find a way to keep it.”

Gifford is trying to get people to donate money to keep the Nocturnal House open, but Schaefer said the zoo can’t take money dedicated to an exhibit it plans to close. Any money sent specifically for the Nocturnal House is being returned.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com