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Merlin the dolphin
Brookfield Zoo photo
Merlin, a bottlenose dolphin, loves to watch visitors at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. A decline in visitor numbers due to the pandemic has left many zoos struggling to stay afloat.
At Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, Merlin and the five other bottlenose dolphins had no visitors for months. They usually enjoy watching people through the glass of an underwater observation room and playfully swimming next to them as they walk by.
Almost 4,000 miles away in England, Jimmy the Gibbon makes up for the lack of audience at the London Zoo by showing off his climbing skills to people over the border fence in neighboring Regent’s Park.
The pandemic, which caused a sharp drop in visitor numbers, was harsh for extroverts like Jimmy and Merlin. But it’s the people who work in thousands of zoos around the world, including many veterinarians, who arguably miss visitors the most.
“It is definitely not something that our animals or our staff have experienced before,” said Dr. Michael Adkesson, Brookfield Zoo’s veterinarian, on the ongoing decline in patronage. “But in some ways it’s strange for the staff who aren’t used to not having visitors to engage with.”
For many practitioners, the past year has been as stressful as it is strange. Zoos, pushed to the brink of collapse by a huge drop in ticket sales, have had to lay off or take leave of thousands of workers. At least one accredited zoo, the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada, has closed its doors to the public indefinitely. Another, Living Coasts in Torquey, England, closed permanently, forcing them to relocate their animals. Even reopened zoos limit visitor numbers to ensure adequate social distancing and limit ticket sales recovery.
Photo by the Zoological Society of London
Zoo keepers at London Zoo take care to keep their distance from one another to reduce the risk of spreading or contracting the coronavirus.
For the most part, zoo veterinarians have kept their jobs as animals need care regardless. Even so, some practitioners remain nervous as the parks continue to have problems – especially those with large indoor areas that cannot easily enforce social distancing, such as the park B. Aquariums. Vets contacted by the VIN news service also reported reduced wages and hours; lengthy operating conditions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (including among animals); a reduction in voting procedures; and freezes during vital nature conservation work.
“We are very careful with all expenses,” said Dr. Amanda Guthrie, a London Zoo veterinarian who lost £ 20 million ($ 29 million) in revenue in 2020, via email. “But animal welfare and health are top priorities for us. That is why we refuse to compromise on food quality and animal care.”
From London to Sydney an unhealthy hibernation
DR. Adkesson 288
Brookfield Zoo photo
Dr. Michael Adkesson, featured with a giraffe named Arnieta, says visitors are thrilled to return to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo as pandemic control restrictions ease.
The extent to which the world’s zoos are suffering depends in part on the number and length of lockdowns they face. London Zoo, for example, is currently closed because the UK is in the middle of a third nationwide lockdown on COVID-19. Brookfield Zoo in the US reopened on March 1st, but only allows for 25% of capacity.
Dan Ashe, executive director of the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums, estimates that its 240 members in 13 countries lost about 25% to 40% of their pre-pandemic revenue. He is impressed with how well they handle it.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, there were significant concerns about the zoos’ ability to maintain animal care,” he told VIN News on a video call. “Fortunately, that didn’t happen at all.”
Ashe notes that AZA members must meet strict criteria in order to receive accreditation, including demonstrating that they have the necessary qualifications to care for residents. The collective fate of the many zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks that are not professionally accredited is less clear.
The survival of the zoos has also been affected by the amount of government funding they can use. In the United States, Ashe said, smaller zoos can access labor subsidies through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. However, many larger companies didn’t have much support. SeaWorld posted losses of $ 45.5 million at all locations for the fourth quarter of 2020.
Photo by the Zoological Society of London
Jimmy, a gibbon with a big personality, opens a leafy vegetable gift he received on his 30th birthday last May.
And some government aid programs are proving to be more effective than others. For example, zoos in the UK complain that a £ 100 million ($ 139 million) package is not very helpful there as they only have to be funded in the last 12 weeks before they can even apply. Some of the UK’s largest zoos wrote an open letter to the government this month asking for funding to be made more accessible.
“We know bans, restrictions and the lack of available government support continue to pose a clear threat to the survival of some of our members,” Jo Judge, executive director of the UK and Irish Associations for Zoos and Aquariums, told VIN News. The judge said 44 zoos had used the UK support package from more than 300 licensees there. At least four UK zoos that do not have BIAZA accreditation have also closed due to the pandemic: the Cathedral Falconry Center, the Sandwich Wildlife Park, the Tamar Otter Sanctuary and the Ventura Wildlife Park.
Even in countries with relatively few COVID-19 cases, visitor numbers have declined due to closings and international border closings. The Australian government last year offered a lifeline of AU $ 95 million (US $ 73 million) to its zoos. In Hong Kong, the Ocean Park Zoo and Aquarium received up to HKD 2.79 billion (US $ 350 million) in government assistance in January. Dr. Sarah Churgin and many of her colleagues from Ocean Park have made a salary cut – in her case initially by 21%, later by 10%.
Meanwhile, Churgin said Ocean Park’s vets have in no way skimped on care. They also work closely with trainers to keep residents entertained. “The trainers did everything they could to ensure that the animals got plenty of mental and physical exercise,” Churgin said via email.
Elsewhere in the Czech Republic, two zoos have allowed their chimpanzees to zoom in to make up for the lack of visitors.
(Not all zoo animals like human visitors. A 2019 study by researchers at the University of Melbourne concluded that preferences may be due to “species-specific differences, the type and intensity of visitor interactions, enclosure design, and individual animal characteristics.”)
Stage design for a reawakening
Another way the pandemic hit zoos
If zoo animals needed medical attention during lockdown, treatment was not always easy. Adkesson, who is also vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society, said the Brookfield Zoo’s vets and vet technicians had been split into teams to reduce the likelihood of everyone getting COVID-19. “Of course, this has significantly reduced our number of employees on site and our user friendliness,” he said.
London Zoo has also separated practitioners and instructed them to work from home regularly, even when teaching students. “There are several members of my team that I haven’t seen in person in a year, although we’re regularly updated on team calls,” Guthrie said. “We’re usually a big, close team that has lunch together and sees each other socially. We all feel socially isolated and really miss each other and the collaboration (and fun!) We usually have.”
According to Adkesson and Guthrie, many election procedures, including preventive medical exams, have been suspended to reduce the time it takes to collaborate.
Movement of animals between zoos for breeding programs has been disrupted, although Adkesson said transportation is picking up again in the US as many zoos there tentatively reopen. The conservation efforts have also been hit hard by funding pressures as this work is largely aided by gate sales.
Adkesson is personally involved in a program on the Peruvian coast – monitoring the movement and foraging of penguins and South American fur seals – which saw fieldwork stall for much of 2020 with a $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package Dollar includes $ 30 million to support facilities that care for endangered and endangered species, such as the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans with its whooping cranes. Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, with its red wolves; and Tampa Zoo with its manatees.
In a broader sense, Ashe is optimistic that AZA members are on the road to recovery. “I don’t see the zoo closing at this time as vaccination and economy trends are huge,” Ashe said. “Of course, if we relapse and the situation worsens again, all bets could be void.”
Adkesson also sees “light at the end of the tunnel” when visitors who want to leave the house enthusiastically return to the Brookfield Zoo.
Even in the UK, London Zoo is literally sowing the seeds of recovery amid plans for the UK’s final lockdown to end next month, Guthrie said. “Our horticultural team worked hard throughout the curfew to ensure the site would be in full bloom when it opened in April.”