Zoo crisis deepens amidst second national lockdown and ‘restrictive‘ bailout conditions

With the financial impact of prolonged closure, zoos, safari parks and aquariums have had a lean 2020. Now, with difficulties securing bailout funding and a second lockdown ushering in winter, things are getting worse.

Published 14 Nov 2020, 16:30 GMT
On 15 June a young visitor observes a giraffe - and new social distancing measures - at ZSL ...

On 15 June a young visitor observes a giraffe - and new social distancing measures - at ZSL London Zoo, on the first day of opening post-lockdown. After highly challenging year, English zoos are again closed amidst a second wave of coronavirus infections – and, according to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, 'facing their worst winter in memory.' 

Photograph by REUTERS / Alamy

IN SPRING this year British zoos, aquariums and safari parks faced extinction when the first coronavirus lockdown forced them, along with other public attractions, to close their doors. Without the financial lifeline of visitor footfall the survival of their animals, upkeep of their facilities and the jobs of their keepers fell under unprecedented pressure. For scientific zoos, the effects ran deeper and further, into research and conservation schemes around the world – including work supporting some of the world’s most threatened species and habitats.

The crisis deepened when shops, garden centres and beaches were allowed to reopen as part of step two of the government’s phased recovery strategy while zoos – along with other ‘ticketed outdoor venues’ such as theme parks and large sports events – remained closed. Zoos, with mouths to feed and many environments often already conversant with social distancing, argued they had been unfairly categorised and lobbied for permission to resume business. 

(Read: on the hunt for the next deadly virus.)

ZSL keepers walk at social distance during the lockdown in Spring 2020. Animal care continued while visitor income stalled – at a cost to the zoological society of £1 million a month.

Photograph by ZSL

Things began to look up when zoos were given the green light to reopen on 15 June. Then, on 27 June, the government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced a fortified £100 million aid package – the Zoo Animals Fund – for organisations financially affected by COVID-19 shutdowns. The funding wasn’t a magic bullet – particularly for operations with multiple sites, and bigger overheads and outreach such as the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) – but it was a start.

However five months on, many zoos remain in serious and deepening financial crisis. Two factors have exacerbated an already desperate position across the board: a second national lockdown, and a bailout package that for many has been too difficult to secure. And with winter looming, the situation for organisations of all sizes is more critical than ever.

‘The toughest time’

“Closing the doors of London Zoo and Whipsnade for the second time in 2020 has put us under immense strain. It’s probably the toughest time in our 200 year history.” ZSL Director General Dominic Jermey told National Geographic UK.

While it was “heartening” to see visitors enjoying the zoos again when they did reopen after the first lockdown, he adds that “operating with reduced capacity to accommodate social distancing meant we didn’t see the financial returns we would expect during a key period such as the school summer holidays. It didn’t even start to make up for the revenue lost.”

The challenges faced by zoos at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t exclusive to the UK. Headlines around the world spoke of zookeeper hands being forced towards permanent closure, euthanasia and even feeding in-house animal populations to each other in a desperate bid to raise awareness and cash to keep operations running.

The ‘rescue package’ of £100 million released by the Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), while welcomed, fell far short of the amount needed to support up to 300 zoo licensees requiring financial assistance across the UK. Announced on 27 June, applications didn’t open until 3 August – and only to organisations operating in England. Of these, ZSL is the largest – and spends far in excess of the maximum individual award of £730,000 just for food and basic animal upkeep in a single month.

“Our fixed monthly cost to feed and care for these animals is £1 million, and we absolutely will not cut corners with that care.”

Amanda Smith, ZSL

Asian elephants at Whipsnade Zoo, operated by ZSL. The UK's largest zoo, its sister site in London's Regent's Park is the UK's oldest scientific zoo. 

Photograph by amanda rose / Alamy

“We care for 20,000 animals including a herd of elephant, two herds of rhino, two packs of lions, and a troop of gorillas to name but a few,” says Amanda Smith, Chief Financial Officer of ZSL. “Our fixed monthly cost to feed and care for these animals is £1 million, and we absolutely will not cut corners with that care. It costs £3,276 just to feed our penguins for a month.”

‘Restrictive criteria’

Scale wasn’t the only criticism of the Zoo Animals Fund. “It is difficult for the vast majority of the sector to access the funding,” Andy Hall of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) told National Geographic in an email – highlighting an ‘untenable’ criteria that meant very few zoos could practically qualify for the scheme at all. This, according to BIAZA, is clear from the numbers: at the time of publication “just five zoos have successfully been awarded a grant.”

The reason, Hall says, is a complex process of eligibility that makes it functionally impossible for larger zoos to access the funding until long after crossing a terminal financial threshold – and this before considering any ancillary costs of wider conservation work and specialist care.

Dominic Jermey agrees: “The Zoo Animals Fund has remained out of reach for us and the majority of zoos because of the restrictive criteria,” he says, adding that “£97 million of the £100 million pledged by the Government remains unallocated.”

Social distancing at Chester Zoo during the summer. Whilst adapting to COVID-19 measures required investment, zoos argued their environments were suited to physical distancing – though capping visitor numbers and restricting confined areas had an impact on footfall, and therefore income. 

Photograph by REUTERS / Alamy

In addition to comprehensive paperwork demonstrating past applications to Treasury and HMRC support schemes, and extensive financial documentation, another potential requirement of the application is that zoos may need to provide ‘evidence of efforts to raise funds’ in order to be eligible.

By the time of the fund's announcement, many had already begun asking the public for support; in July, David Attenborough volunteered his voice to an appeal for funding by ZSL, stressing how far beyond the society’s enclosures the financial impact travels. “ZSL’s work is vital in driving forward a vision of a world where wildlife thrives,” he said, in his voiceover for a video. “Put bluntly, the national institution is itself at risk of extinction.” 

Addressing mounting criticism from the industry, on 1 October a statement from DEFRA acknowledged awareness of the ‘conservation benefits larger zoos provided’, adding the government ‘recently expanded eligibility criteria for this funding, and have made it easier for zoos to plan ahead by encouraging them to apply for support well in advance of running into financial difficulties.’

A keeper feeds a mongoose at London Zoo. Precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have extended to those handling animals, with concerns over inter-species transmission. Tigers have been known to be infected and 15 million mink are set to be culled at fur farms in Europe. 

Photograph by ZSL

“For animal care staff furloughing is not an option... these are highly skilled and experienced essential workers.”

Andy Hall, BIAZA

‘Well in advance’ is defined as 12 weeks or less in financial reserves remaining – a revision from six weeks initially – which is well beyond the point of no return for larger zoos, BAIZA claims. In a statement, it emphasised that long before the threshold of 12 weeks, ‘many zoos would have already closed and rehomed their collections,’ citing an example that even in normal circumstances it took one BAIZA member two years to find a suitable new home for their elephant herd.

“This restrictive criteria is not appropriate for animal care organisations,” says Hall.

‘You can’t furlough a lion’

In addition to the investment in making their facilities COVID-safe, further financial pressure on zoos lies in the fact many of their workers can’t simply be furloughed. Preparations were made and lessons learned from the first lockdown, but certain factors cannot be compromised.

“We didn’t predict a second lockdown, we never wanted it to happen again – but we knew it was a very real possibility.” Says ZSL’s Dominic Jermey. “We knew some office staff could be quickly furloughed if necessary, with staff such as zookeepers and the veterinary team placed on two rotas to build flexibility and sickness backup. But we’re unable to furlough our crucial animal carers.”

This is echoed in smaller operations. “For animal care staff [furloughing] is not an option as the high standard of care has to continue regardless of lockdowns or anything else.” Says BIAZA’s Andy Hall. “You cannot furlough a lion therefore you cannot furlough its keeper; these are highly skilled and experienced essential workers. But they are not counted by government as key workers.”

“We will never cut costs when it comes to animal care, but the losses made this year will set back our critical outreach work,” adds ZSL’s Amanda Smith. “We have already tightened our belts – during the first lockdown, we slashed our monthly outgoings from £3.8m to £2.3m through a combination of measures including furloughing eligible staff, halting our marketing activity and reducing site running costs to a bare minimum. [But] we have other costs for ongoing projects, colleagues working all around the world, the maintenance of sterile labs, boats and field offices – it costs money to create impact on an entire world of wildlife.”

The way ahead

With coronavirus continuing to dominate the news and winter approaching, many zoos are planning for the worst. “Being closed again in the run-up to Christmas, when we would typically welcome plenty of visitors to see our penguins or meet Santa, is another huge financial blow,” says Dominic Jermey.

Zoological Society of London conservation work tackling wildlife crime in Cameroon (left) and shark tagging. Scientific zoos with conservation programs have been keen to highlight the outreach entry tickets help to fund, as gates remain closed and bailout funding difficult to secure. 

Photograph by ZSL

Justin Madders is Shadow Minister for Social Care and MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, whose constituency contains The Blue Planet Aquarium and part of one of Britain’s largest scientific zoos, Chester Zoo. On 12 November he renewed calls for action on the Zoo Animals Fund in the House of Commons, pressing for Secretary of State George Eustace to “tell us what he is going to do to make sure this scheme benefits zoos and aquariums as it was intended to do.”

“From an economic, cultural and conservation perspective zoos play an absolutely vital role nationally and internationally,” Madders told National Geographic UK in an email. “It is just not good enough for the government to continue to ignore the concerns of zoos up and down the country [with a] support fund so poorly designed that most of them cannot access it. Urgent action is needed.”

On 13 November DEFRA confirmed to National Geographic UK the imminent deadline for funding applications had been extended from 16 November to 29 January, indicating its earlier statement that zoos “can apply in advance of having 12 weeks or less in financial reserves remaining,” and that “their application would then be processed, and they would receive a provisional payment date and grant amount” – also citing other sources of business support. Pressed on why the £100 million Zoo Animal Fund has been so hard for organisations to secure, they added: “We have received 31 applications for the Zoo Animals Fund and encourage zoos and aquariums in need and eligible for funding to apply. We stand ready to process any further applications.” 

In any case, DEFRA is clear the Zoo Animal Fund is awarded only to help “zoos and aquariums pay for animal welfare related costs and essential maintenance, rather than education and conservation work.”

Scientific zoos, meanwhile, are keen to underline that the death of their institutions would also lead to the death of critical research: the need for which, they say, couldn’t be more topical or pressing. Its also one response they offer – amongst a raft of conservation victories – to the claim that zoos have ‘had their day.’  

“After our running costs, all income goes to conservation – from combatting illegal wildlife trade to restoring and protecting wildlife populations and habitats.” Says Kathryn England, Chief Operating Officer of ZSL London Zoo. “Fighting global biodiversity loss means meeting endless need with limited resource. We continue to lead the science on wildlife health and infectious disease that jumps species, and our zoos provide critical funding for that. It is precisely what the world needs to reduce the risk of the next COVID-19.”

“It is the research and work of organisations such as ZSL that will help prevent this happening again in the future.” Adds Dominic Jermey. “We must be supported.”

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