Is COVID-19 really Armaggedon for zoos, or just another funding pitch?
HONG KONG, LONDON––Seven thousand animals at Ocean Park in Hong Kong and as many as 20,000 animals at the London Zoo and subsidiary Whipsnade Zoo are only the most politically conspicuous of thousands of menageries now at risk––and perhaps being held for ransom from the public till––as result of forced closures due to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic.
As of May 11, 2020, ANIMALS 24-7 has yet to find verified reports of mass starvations, euthanasias, or slaughters of some animals to feed others at any zoo––though such could yet occur––that could accurately be attributed to the closures due to COVID-19.
But zoo management worldwide, via mass media, are increasingly framing their current cash flow crisis as a last ditch fight for survival that could end with animals either starving or requiring euthanasia, should the zoos run out of money due to lack of paid admissions.
War is hell––but is this a war?
The zoo management narrative is that COVID-19 has hit the entire zoo industry, worldwide, much as warfare from time to time has hit individual zoos.
Recent examples of zoo collections starving due to warfare, prominent in donor memory, range alphabetically by nation from the Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan to the Taiz Zoological Gardens in Yemen.
Some of the zoos afflicted by warfare and civil strife have been as old and established as the Giza Zoo in Cairo, founded in 1891; others as new and transient as the many roadside zoos that have failed, typically after only a few years of operation, in the Palestinian-occupied Gaza strip of Israel.
Time and again, animal charity donors worldwide have responded to appeals to save the animals who have survived these disasters, usually after the deaths of other animals furnished grisly photos for mass media distribution.
Zoos rapidly recovered, even from World War II
Often some of the surviving animals have been relocated to sanctuaries, most notably through the genuinely daring and heroic efforts of Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) veterinarian Amir Khalil, and of Baghdad Zoo savior Lawrence Anthony, who died in 2012.
Almost always, however, the zoos––even those that surrendered their last living animals––relatively rapidly reopen for business as usual soon after the shooting stops.
This also occurred in Europe and Japan after the devastation of World War II. Few entertainment venues rebuilt and reopened more rapidly than did zoos, even those in Berlin and Tokyo that had been bombed to scorched rubble.
Time and again, reopening zoos has become a post-war priority, as a symbol of recovery and stability.
But is the COVID-19 crisis really analogous to the effects of warfare, perhaps even a world war?
Are the urgent appeals of zoo management for government bailouts really about saving starving animals, or are they more about seizing a perceived opportunity to obtain capital for reinvestment in facilities that are expected to rake in record-breaking profits, once the crisis is over and crowds return to the gates, souvenir shops, and concession stands?
These are among the questions on the table, in comparable words, in Hong Kong during the second week of May 2020, where the Legislative Council Finance Committee is debating whether to bail out the 43-year-old Ocean Park oceanarium, zoo, and amusement park.
“Ocean Park could go bankrupt next month unless it receives an urgent bailout of $700,000 (U.S.) the government warned,” wrote South China Morning Post reporters Chris Lau and Ng Kang-chung on May 11, 20202, “even as lawmakers questioning the use of taxpayers’ money look set to make funding approval a rough ride.
“The proposal could buy the tourist attraction enough time to stay afloat for another 12 months, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah said,” continued Lau and Ng Kang-chung.
Already deeply in debt
“The government had considered giving the park [twice as much] back in January for longer-term renovation, but given the collapse of the tourism industry caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was now weighing only half that amount, according to Yau.”
Ocean Park, Lau and Ng Kang-chung noted, has been closed since January 26, 20202, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has lost as much as $90 million (U.S.), but the facility was already in deep economic trouble, owing commercial banks nearly $400 million and the Hong Kong government $645 million.
The underlying issue appears to be a decade-plus of failed efforts to transition from primarily serving Hong Kong to becoming a regional destination resort, in competition with other zoo-and-oceanarium-centered resorts in Shanghai, Zhuhai, Shenzhen, and Macau.
“The issue now is whether we should keep pumping money to support a money-losing company,” assessed Liberal Party of Hong Kong legislator Felix Chung Kwok-pan, adding “I don’t think it is a big deal if Ocean Park has to shut down.”
Except, of course, for the animals, many of whom may have nowhere else to go, even though Ocean Park is much less than their ideal habitat.
London Zoo is falling down?
London Zoo, meanwhile, opened in 1828, “says it could be forced to close permanently because the coronavirus crisis is costing it around £2.3million every month,” reported Daily Mail correspondent Colin Fernandez on May 6, 2020.
The Guardian, the Daily Mail, BBC News, and other major British media soon prominently amplified the message, mentioning that even the Nazi blitzkrieg of World War II had closed the London Zoo for only two weeks, whereas COVID-19 has kept the zoo closed since March 21, 2020.
“The zoo has already furloughed 280 staff,” wrote Fernandez, “but needs a cash injection of £25 million ($31 million U.S.) to stay afloat as it faces the worst crisis in its history.
“Dominic Jermey, director general of the Zoological Society of London, has warned that, despite the remainder of workers also agreeing a 20% pay cut, its reserves will soon run out.”
Cannot secure a bank loan?
“Our 20,200 giraffes, tigers, lions, meerkats, penguins and other animals need us as much today as any other day,” Jeremy said, lamenting that the London Zoo had been unable to secure a bank loan to cover operating costs, even though it had assets of $80 million entering 2020, according to the British Charities Commission.
“Ironically,” Jeremy said, the Zoological Society of London “entered this crisis with no debt and decent reserves. Without income, those reserves are dwindling and we now desperately need a significant injection of cash.
“Many assume a venerable institution like the London Zoo receives regular government funding,” Jeremy added. “But that is not the case. Our world-leading science and conservation work is underpinned by the money we earn.”
Operated for 20 years with no daily visitor income
Originally open only to Zoological Society of London dues-paying members, the London Zoo absorbed the former Tower of London menagerie in 1831-1832, but did not begin selling general admission day passes until 1847.
This meant that the London Zoo operated for 20 years with no daily visitor income at all, albeit in a very different era from now.
Earlier, in mid-April 2020, all-party Parliamentary Group for Zoos & Aquariums chair Andrew Rosindell, a senior member of the Conservative delegation, warned the Boris Johnson-led government that most of the 320 British zoos would soon be bankrupt without help.
“Unless there is a rescue package, there is a real chance of their animals being euthanized and nobody wants that,” Rosindell told media.
Who were those masked men & women?
The Toronto Zoo, Calgary Zoo, and Vancouver Aquarium all acknowledged severe financial stress to Nicole Thompson of Canadian Press.
Reportedly losing $3 million a month during the COVID-19 closure, the Vancouver Aquarium warned in mid-April 2020 that it might have to close permanently by June.
That threat, however, may have been averted, at least for a time, by a mask promotion undertaken in partnership with the Vancouver Whitecaps professional soccer team. The promotion reportedly sold 42,000 masks within two days of the masks going on sale.
Vancouver Aquarium already struggling for 20 years
Noted for marine mammal exhibits since opening in 1956, the Vancouver Aquarium in 1964 became the first facility in the world to exhibit an orca whale, Moby Doll, who died three months later, and in 1985 was first to host a captive birth of a beluga whale.
Struggling to attract visitors since giving up exhibiting orcas in 2001, under intense political pressure, the Vancouver Aquarium has not exhibited belugas either since 2018, and since mid-2019 has been prohibited by Canadian law from acquiring more whales or dolphins.
The last Vancouver Aquarium dolphin, a 30-year-old Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen, who lost both forelimbs when entangled in a fishing net in 1996, was at last report slated for transfer as soon as practicable to retirement at Sea World San Antonio.
Culling deer to feed lions
Australian tourism minister Peter Birmingham on April 28, 2020 offered more than 100 zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums the opportunity to apply for a share of $94.6 million allocated by the government to help pay for costs such as food, veterinary bills, water, and electricity needed for animal care during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
German zoos, meanwhile, are reportedly seeking a government bailout of 100 million euros (worth $109 million in U.S. dollars).
Neumünster Zoo director Verena Kaspari reinforced the demand, and made global headlines in early April 2020, by telling media that, “At the worst, we would have to feed some of the animals to others. We’ve listed the animals we’ll have to slaughter first.”
Kaspari failed to mention, however, that raising surpluses of easily bred hooved animals and then culling some to help feed the resident carnivores has been common zoo practice since the dawn of zookeeping.
Many zoos have on-site slaughtering sheds, specifically to avoid having to transport flighty animals such as zebras, deer and antelope, off-site to be slaughtered.
Phuket Zoo “starving animals” case
The management of the Phuket Zoo on the southern peninsula of Thailand reportedly abandoned the resident animals, including tigers, to starve after the Phuket governor ordered the closure of all tourist attractions on March 28, 2020.
Observed the Phuket News, “The Phuket Zoo has an infamous reputation in social media where people have shared posts of pathetic looking animals for years and urged people not to go. Sited next to the dolphinarium in Chalong, the two attractions have come under constant fire from animal rights supporters.”
But Edwin Wiek, founder of the Bangkok-based wildlife rescue organization Animal Friends Thailand, warned that all was not as it appeared.
“There are some fundraisers ongoing on the net to help the tigers at the Phuket Zoo,” Wiek explained. These fundraising campaigns are set up by private people who are not the owners of the tigers, have no legal access to the tigers, and are not involved with the rescue of these tigers. The tigers will not be released by the owners to anyone. The owners have said they will keep the tigers for a newly built zoo on Phuket.”
Four fundraisers busted
A week after Wiek spoke, Phuket police reportedly arrested U.S. citizen Joy Marie Somers, Australian citizen Minh Nguyen, and two Thai men, Hussen Armad and Hassen Coltcah, for alleged fraudulent fundraising on behalf of the Phuket Zoo animals.
“A security guard reported seeing four people climb over the outside wall and into the zoo around 6 p.m. on April 14, 2020, and taking videos of some of the animals,” Phuket police chief Rungroj Thakunpunyasiri told Achadtaya Chuenniran of the Bangkok Post.
“Video clips with comments alleging the animals were abandoned and unfed were later posted on Joy Somers’ Facebook page, asking for public donations to buy animal feed,” Achadtaya Chuenniran explained. “The videos were also uploaded on Minh Nguyen’s Instagram page,” also with an appeal for donations,” to be transferred into a bank account held “in the name of another suspect, Hussen Armad, the Phuket police chief said.
Phuket Zoo owner Suriya Tanthaweewong, 40, “filed a complaint with Chalong police,” Achadtaya Chuenniran finished. “He said the zoo was not seeking public donations, and the animals were not abandoned, and not left to starve. They were being adequately cared for and fed, he said.”