Zoos scrape by with bare necessities

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: effects from the economic lockdown extend to zoos.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Just like museums, zoos are also facing financial trouble. 

For the most extreme example, a zookeeper in northern Germany last month issued a dire warning. She said her zoo might run out of money to buy food. If that happens, she suggested nature just may have to take its course. And going against our journalistic sensibility, I think less detail is more.

BASHAM: Right! Thankfully it hasn’t reached that point yet. 

And there is a glimmer of hope, because many zoos are preparing to reopen. 

But they’ll likely continue to feel the financial strain for months to come.

WORLD reporter Katie Gaultney has the story.

MUSIC: [Welcome to the Dallas Zoo] 

KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: That’s the song that greets visitors as they enter the Dallas Zoo. By the looks of the parking lot these days, the people are in hibernation. The zoo shut its doors mid-March when shelter-in-place orders went into effect. But animals still require a lot of care, whether guests come to the park or not. There’s breeding programs, enclosure maintenance, and of course, food. In some cases, a lot of food. 

JAMES: An elephant on average eats 3 percent of their body weight. So if you’re looking at a 10,000 pound elephant, which is not a huge elephant, they’re eating 300 pounds of food every single day. So when you multiply that across the eight elephants that we have, and it gets to be an amazing amount of food…

This fun fact courtesy of Matt James. He’s senior director of animal care at the Dallas Zoo. I asked him about the real elephant in the room: money. He told me his zoo costs more than $600,000 a week to operate. 

JAMES: The numbers when you break them down weekly are mind boggling and a little terrifying because we’re not normally thinking of being closed for any number of days, let alone… more than two months now…

That money goes toward animal care, facilities upkeep, and of course, the biggest line item: payroll. The zoo employs a staff of 135 animal care specialists. And they’re not just missing the dollars and cents. 

JAMES: You know, there’s an energy and a buzz when the park is full and people are running around having a good time and kids are having a good time, and the animals can even sense that I think.

The Dallas Zoo is a nonprofit and relies extensively on memberships, donations, and community support to maintain its operating fund. Dallas has been able to avoid furloughs and layoffs, but not all zoos have. 

Dennis Pate is CEO of Omaha’s nonprofit Henry Doorly Zoo. He told me his operation has a lot of feathers in its cap: 

PATE: We have the largest aquarium in a zoo in the United States. We have the largest indoor jungle in the United States. We have the largest desert dome in the United States. So outside of San Diego, we probably have more animals than any other place in the country.

But one thing it doesn’t have a lot of, right now, is employees in the park. Omaha has done two rounds of furloughs to try to cut expenses. All of those indoor facilities—seven acres’ worth—are great when Omaha’s weather is chilly. But maintenance costs add up. Pate says the zoo has cut travel, turned off some utilities, implemented hiring freezes—anything to ensure it maintains the highest standard of animal care. His zoo costs $48 million a year to run, and the spring and summer months are the most expensive.

PATE: We’ve depleted a lot of our other funds beside the operating fund in order to operate the zoo. 

As it is, Pate says if a water pipe breaks or an air conditioning unit goes out, they’ll have to consider taking out loans to cover costs. While most zoos get 20 to 40 percent of their operating budgets from public funds, 91 percent of the Henry Doorly Zoo’s operating budget comes from memberships and money generated on the zoo grounds. That’s unique, and it’s made this extended closure extra tough. Ticket sales, restaurant and gift shop purchases, facilities rentals for weddings or corporate events—all swept away by the pandemic. 

PATE: I mean, I hope we only have a 50 percent loss of revenue, but it could be stronger than that. We just don’t know. 

James thinks zoos accredited by the AZA—that’s the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—will weather the pandemic. A little bruised and bandaged, maybe, but they’ll make it. That’s partly because AZA-accreditation requires solid contingency plans. Dallas and Omaha are accredited, so they’ve got strong back-up plans to ensure their longevity—and the animals’ well being. 

But James says that’s not the case for all zoos.

JAMES: There are probably non-accredited zoos or smaller operations that are really struggling to take care of their animals right now. 

Rescue organizations, wildlife officials, and other government regulators would step in to find homes for animals in zoos that have to close. 

In some parts of the country, easing restrictions means visitors will be able to return to their local zoos soon. The Dallas Zoo opens its gates to the public with limited capacity tomorrow, and the Henry Doorly Omaha Zoo is planning on a June 1 reopening. But they’ve got a lot of ground to make up for all that down time. 

PATE: Nobody envisioned, you know, what are we, 10 weeks, 10 weeks closed now? So that’s why we’re in pretty dire straits. But I think there’s also a pretty good understanding of just we need people to come through the gate to, for us to continue to take great care of the animals.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Katie Gaultney in Dallas, Texas.

(Photo/Dallas Zoo)

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