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Zoos, aquariums find ways to overcome pandemic deficits to keep animals fed and healthy

Posted at 1:42 PM, Jan 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-07 15:41:59-05

Pandemic or no pandemic, animals at zoos and aquariums across the country need to eat.

It has been a struggle for some as they have lost the lion’s share of their revenue due to restrictions: their visitors.

“Come hell or high water we’re going to take care of these animals and that’s really the creed of the AZA,” said Denver Zoo spokesman Jake Kubie.

The AZA is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit that works with our country’s 240 accredited zoos and aquariums. In it there are more than half a million animals that need food and care each day and every day; it's something zoos nationwide have prioritized.

“[The pandemic has] definitely been one of those things like what the heck’s going on,” said Denver Zoo’s nutritionist Jason Williams.

For many businesses, budget reductions have been a normal recourse since the pandemic has slashed the number of patrons that have paid visits, but at zoos care for animals cannot be sacrificed.

At Denver Zoo, 70 percent of the revenue comes from visitors. During the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns, the zoo was closed for three months, and then, it was able to open on a limited-capacity basis. First, it was 25 percent occupancy during the typically busy summer months, and then, 50 percent before the most recent round of lockdowns went into place during the fall and winter and knocked occupancy back down to 25 percent.

It has led to a $10 million deficit since the pandemic started.

“I think it’s safe to say that in that time this has been the most challenging year in the zoo’s history and in the industry’s history, honestly,” said Kubie.

At Denver Zoo, it costs $1 million per month to care for its 3,000 animals, and about $100,000 of that is spent on food alone. The cost fluctuates nationwide depending on zoo size, but many have had to cut staff--some of whom have formed bonds with the animals--choose more cost-effective ingredients for meals, and slashing educational programs and conservation efforts that make the zoo a bastion of experiential learning for adults and kids alike.

“It’s been a challenging time but it’s allowed us to focus on the things that are very important and make sure those things don’t change,” said Williams.

Zoos with fewer than 300 employees will be eligible for part of the $284 billion in PPP loans included in the government’s most recent stimulus package passed around the holidays, as well as $15 billion in grants, making balancing the budget a bit easier until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

“The zoo is such a special place because the circle of life continues here no matter what,” said Kubie.