Lockdown at the zoo - As visitors return, what has been the impact of Covid-19 on our region’s wildlife centres?
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 August 2020
RUTH DOWNING (RURAL PICTURES)
While many businesses closed in March, for those with animals, shutting up shop entirely was not an option
Zoos and wildlife parks were particularly hard hit when forced to close their doors to visitors during the lockdown period.
Two of the region’s attractions, Twycross Zoo and Peak Wildlife Park, were faced with the prospect of almost no income stream practically overnight when the Government announced their temporary closure on Sunday 22nd March.
As most of their income comes from visitor attendance and experience days, the past few months have been some of the most challenging ever faced.
PEAK WILDLIFE PARK
Though the doors were closed, work at the Peak Wildlife Park at Winkhill, near Leek on fringes of the Western Peak District, couldn’t stop and the staff continued to work hard to feed and care for all of the park’s 100+ animals, but looking after them isn’t cheap.
The park still had to pay for food, heating, filtration systems, veterinary care and supplements and it was these ongoing costs that prompted the team to begin a Crowdfunding page to ask for help from the general public. Any donations, big or small, helped cover costs and ensure the park could continue its mission to conserve endangered species from across the globe.
And it’s not just penguins. Although well known for its Humboldt Penguins, Peak Wildlife Park is home to a vast array of animals, including Vietnamese Sika Deer, a species extinct in the wild, critically endangered Visayan warty pigs and a number of endangered lemur species.
During these challenging times it remained essential to provide the highest levels of animal care. This, of course, was extremely costly, with food bills alone significant; costs of around £30 per day to feed the penguins, £16 to provide the lemurs with their daily dose of veg and £14 to make sure the otters can enjoy their preferred diet of shellfish. The bills continue to mount when including items like specialist veterinary care, heating bills and everything else it takes to keep these amazing animals alive and well.
Thankfully, the response to the Crowdfunding page was incredible, with almost £17,000 received since the lockdown closure of the park to the public.
Keepers at Peak Wildlife Park kept supporters up to date with the activities of the animals by introducing virtual tours and live broadcasts such as Walkabout Wednesday and the daily weigh ins of the penguin chicks on social media.
Much work was also undertaken to ensure that all safety and social distancing measures were in place in readiness for the re-opening of the park, which finally came about with the easing of lockdown in June.
Staff were overwhelmed with the support received during these difficult months, which helped so much to maintain the health and wellbeing of the animals and to make the park what it continues to be today.
Twycross Zoo enjoyed its best year ever in 2019, with record-breaking visitor numbers. It also announced its 2030 Vision, which included developing a national centre for science and conservation in the heart of the Midlands.
However, while Twycross Zoo has blossomed in its 57 years, 2019 now feels a long time ago. The zoo hoped to be celebrating its birthday in style this year, however it was forced to close its gates in March due to the Covid-19 crisis, meaning there were no visitors for a significant period of time to help celebrate.
Instead, the zoo found itself in the unforeseen position of fighting to protect its future, with costs continuing to mount and income having all but dried up when the gates closed.
‘This milestone is bittersweet for us,’ accepts Dr Sharon Redrobe OBE, CEO of Twycross Zoo.
‘It’s an incredible achievement to be open for 57 years, however without our visitors it wasn’t as happy as it should have been. We have experienced, and are still experiencing, a very uncertain time, and we’ve never been closed this long in our history.’
While Government initiatives like the furlough scheme and business interruption loans have helped to some extent, zoos across the UK are in a difficult position in that many costs and operations have had to continue, even without visitors, as they have animals to care for.
Twycross Zoo refused to compromise on the standard of care they provide to their animals and is striving to continue the vital conservation work they do. While the Government had set up a fund to help some small zoos, Twycross Zoo is not eligible, so different support remains desperately needed from the Government to protect the future of the zoo and its animals after months of no real revenue.
‘In order to keep operating the zoo relied on its reserves, which ran out in June, as well as donations from its many supporters,’ adds Dr Redrobe.
‘It is vital that this work continues in support of the UK’s commitment to global biodiversity. It still cost us over half a million pounds a month to run the zoo even whilst closed, and there are no grants from the Government for large zoos like us undertaking critical conservation work and caring for such large groups of endangered species. Every day we were shut we were getting into more debt.
‘Whilst shut we worked to ensure our staff had a safe environment and we worked hard on measures to observe social distancing and hygiene guidelines on site for our visitors; making many changes to how we operate to ensure that when we did open we were Covid-19 secure in line with all Government guidelines.
‘Opening again recently means we can now provide a Covid-19 secure environment for families to relax and enjoy nature, as well as some much-needed income and a sigh of relief for the future of our zoo.’
Twycross Zoo has been calling on their supporters and visitors of the past and future to generously make a donation, with any amount - big or small - continuing to help in the mission to protect the future of the award-winning zoo for generations to come.
One supporter who has been taking up the fundraising challenge is local veterinary surgeon Wendy Furness, who ran a mile a day for a month dressed in an inflatable rhino suit and other animal costumes.
‘Its a tough world out there for everyone at the minute so I thought I could try to raise a few smiles as well as raising awareness and money for organisations that are important to me,’ explains Wendy.
‘I have been very lucky to have seen wild rhinos and the enormous amount of work that goes into protecting them. As an umbrella species this protects other animals and it also provides support for people in the regions who work in conservation.’ u
To donate to Wendy’s Just Giving page, visit uk.virginmoneygiving.com/wendyfurness