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Zoos look for financial help to feed animals during COVID-19 closures

Zoos look for financial help to feed animals during COVID-19 closures

TORONTO — Cash-strapped zoos and aquariums across Canada are soliciting donations from the public to keep their animals fed and cared for during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Toronto Zoo, the Calgary Zoo and the Vancouver Aquarium all say they’re facing new financial strains as they enter a second month of closures.

The facilities typically rely on admissions and parking fees to pay for such necessities as food and environment upkeep.

“It costs about $1 million a year to feed animals at the Toronto Zoo, and it’s not like going to the pet store and picking up a bag of ‘chow’ or something like that,” said Beth Gilhespy, executive director of the Toronto Zoo Wildlife Conservancy. ”They need a very specialized diet made up of ingredients that are natural and they would find in the wild.”

The conservancy, which is the zoo’s fundraising partner, has launched a campaign to make up that lost revenue so they can continue feeding and caring for the facility’s 5,000 animals at the usual high standard, Gilhespy said.

Usually, the conservancy focuses on raising money to protect endangered species through zoo programs, she said. For instance, the zoo helped reintroduce hundreds of endangered turtles to their natural habitat — the Rouge Valley, right outside the zoo’s gates.

“Right now with COVID-19, we have another urgent need, so we’re stepping up to meet that,” Gilhespy said.

The conservancy said it will begin reaching out to make its needs known and rally supporters.

The Calgary Zoo is also facing a crunch, the facility’s chief development officer said.

Looking after the Calgary Zoo’s 1,000 animals generally costs $550,000 per month — a figure that includes food and vet care, Steven Ross said.

The zoo has laid off about 60 per cent of its staff in order to cut costs, but without fundraising, he said, it won’t be enough to keep the animals cared for while maintaining conservation efforts.

“Our animal care continues to be world class,” said Ross. ”We have not seen a reduction on that side, and it remains our main focus — and that’s why we’re going out with this public appeal.”

The Vancouver Aquarium, meanwhile, has said it could be forced into bankruptcy and permanent closure because of the pandemic.

The aquarium has been closed since March 17 but faces monthly costs upwards of $1 million for animal care and habitat maintenance.

If it doesn’t find funding, aquarium operator Ocean Wise Conservation Association said it will likely be bankrupt by early summer.

The not-for-profit aquarium currently houses more than 70,000 animals and has laid off 60 per cent of its staff while the remainder are working reduced hours, the association said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press