‘Facing New World': Uncertainty Abounds at Philly Area Zoos, Aquariums Due to Virus

Zoos and aquariums face a unique set of challenges due to the fact that, even while shuttered, they cannot simply “turn off the lights” to save on costs

An ocelot paws at the glass separating it from a donkey at the Elmwood Park Zoo in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
Elmwood Park Zoo

A penguin turns its head to and fro across the water, as if confused, as the stingrays glide their flattened bodies along the shallows. An ocelot paws at the glass as a donkey’s snout fogs the barrier between them. The alpacas look on from across the gate as the geese and their goslings waddle by.

With keepers taking animals out of their usual enclosures, both for their enrichment and the entertainment of people watching on social media, the coronavirus pandemic makes for strange bedfellows.

But though closures can make for eyebrow-raising and even endearing sights, the absence of people at zoos and aquariums in the Philadelphia region is creating an elephant-sized financial burden, to the tune of millions of dollars.

“This really couldn’t have happened at a worse possible time for the zoo and aquarium industry,” said Vince Nicocoletti, the executive director for Adventure Aquarium in Camden County, New Jersey.

The pandemic has thrust the U.S. economy into financial turmoil, affecting virtually all industries and acutely hurting small businesses. Zoos and aquariums, though, face a unique set of challenges due to the fact that, even while shuttered, they cannot simply “turn off the lights” to save on costs.

Adventure Aquarium, which has been closed since March 16, has furloughed 125 full and part-time staff, and the remaining 26 have taken up to a 50% pay cut, Nicoletti said. Despite that, the aquarium has continued to spend around $500,000 a month to maintain operations and keep its roughly 8,000 animals alive.

To keep animals thriving, the aquarium has to spend money not only on food but on medicine, chemicals that regulate water quality and “massive” life support systems, Nicoletti said.

The picture is similar at the Philadelphia Zoo and at Elmwood Park Zoo in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, which also have to factor in specialized care for their animals.

“They need almost as much care, if not significantly more than you would care for your own pet at home. They all get dental exams, they all get annual exams. When you’re an 18-foot-tall giraffe, they just have much bigger problems sometimes,” Elmwood Park Executive Director and CEO Al Zone said.

Even capybaras, a species of giant rodent, receive treatment somewhat akin to what humans might receive. A recent video posted on the Elmwood Park Zoo’s Facebook page shows a vet technician using cold laser therapy to relieve some arthritis pain for Scar, a capybara that’s long in the tooth in both the literal and figurative sense.

For all three venues, this would normally be the peak revenue-generating time of the year. Instead, they’re having to adjust to a strange present and uncertain future.

“We have been closed since early March, more than two months now, so that has many implications for us,” Philadelphia Zoo COO Andrew Baker said.

The Philadelphia Zoo is the oldest in the nation and currently houses some 1,300 animals. In normal times, it can expect to see as many as 13,000 guests during peak days and generate $12-15 million from March to June, a substantial chunk of its roughly $28 million a year operating budget, Baker said.

“We primarily fund our operations through ticket sales, thorough membership, through food and gifts that people buy while they’re here, so all of that revenue is being lost and it won’t be recouped,” he said.

Instead, even in a guest-free environment, the Philadelphia Zoo is spending around $1.5 million a month just to care for the animals, Baker said.

The astronomical sum is perhaps not unexpected, given its size, but even the much smaller Elmwood Park Zoo is feeling the pinch.

Admissions there make up roughly 80% of the zoo’s annual income, Zone said. Though smaller than its Philadelphia counterpart, his facility is still spending about $18,000 a day to take care of its 300 or so animals, plus an additional $200,000 on payroll every two weeks, he said.

For zoos and aquariums not just in the Philadelphia region but across the United States, the longer they remain closed, the closer they could get to reaching “critical” levels, said Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting body that accredits both the Philadelphia and Elmwood Park zoos, as well as Adventure Aquarium.

Like Baker, Nicoletti and Zone, Ashe said he remains optimistic about the ability of zoos and aquariums to weather the current financial hardship, but he cautioned that a second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, which some health experts fear could happen later this year, could upend that positive outlook.

“I think there’s a bit of optimism that perhaps they’ll be able to be open and generate some significant revenue into June and July, and if that can happen then I think they can recover. But if that doesn’t happen … and closures continue and facilities are re-closed and this goes into August and September, then I think we’ll be in a much more critical position,” Ashe said.

Under a critical state, it could become more difficult to care for animals, a problem exacerbated by the fact that zoos and aquariums might not be able to shift their collections to other facilities at a time of crisis, since they’re all suffering virtually the same effects of the pandemic, he said. Ashe added that such circumstances might require the development of regional partnerships to ensure animal welfare.

To remain viable, zoos and aquariums might also have to pear back conservation efforts that play a critical role in keeping some species from going extinct, he said.

Zone, of Elmwood Park Zoo, said the zoo’s mission will always include conservation, but he acknowledged that, “This will 100% impact conservation across the board.”

And, although there will be consumer appetite after such a long time away, zoos and aquariums won’t be able to quickly recover, even when they are allowed to reopen.

When it does open its gates again, the Philadelphia Zoo will not only be doing more cleaning but will limit crowd sizes through practices like reserved ticket sales and timed entrance for guests, Baker said. Initially, indoor exhibits may also remain closed.

Zone and Nicoletti, of Elmwood Park Zoo and Adventure Aquarium, said they’re exploring similar plans.

“Everybody is facing a new world, at least for the time being,” Baker said.

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