COVID-19 red ink left the Calgary Zoo with a black-and-white choice
CALGARY, Alberta, Canada––Giving up hope that a rare giant panda exhibit will continue to pay for itself––and of managing to keep the pandas fed through the COVID-19 pandemic––the Calgary Zoological Society on May 12, 2020 disclosed to media that it has asked the Canadian and Chinese governments for permits to fly the pandas back to China at the earliest possible date.
The Calgary Zoo and city of Calgary had hoped hosting the pandas Er Shun and Da Mao on a five-year loan, from March 2018 to 2023, would attract revenue to the city of $16 to $18 million, counting gate receipts, concession and souvenir sales, and hotel and restaurant patronage by out-of-town visitors.
$1 million a year for the pair
The panda acquisition paid off at first. In 2018 the Calgary Zoo drew 1.5 million people, slightly more than the two-week annual Calgary Stampede, which itself enjoyed record attendance. In 2019 both the Calgary Zoo and the Calgary Stampede also celebrated big crowds, with the zoo again coming out slightly ahead.
But the Calgary Zoo has been closed due to COVID-19 since March 16, 2020. The 2020 Calgary Stampede was cancelled two days later, meaning, in effect, that there will be no 2020 tourist season in Calgary.
With no money coming in to pay for the upkeep of the zoo collection about 1,000 animals of 119 species, the pandas were the most costly and difficult Calgary Zoo residents to feed and maintain. Unloading them helps the Calgary Zoo to save many of the rest.
“The rental bill charged by the Chinese government amounts to $1 million a year for the pair,” reported Hannah Beech for Time magazine in January 2016, “and that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for the animals’ upkeep.”
Panda eats shoots & leaves
Explained the Calgary Zoo in a prepared statement, “Giant pandas have unique nutritional requirements: 99% of their diet is made up of fresh bamboo and each adult giant panda consumes approximately 80 pounds of bamboo daily. In the last two months, the Calgary Zoo has seen changes in transportation destroy the bamboo supply lines [the pandas] have depended on since their arrival.
“Direct flight cancellations between China and Calgary resulted in WestJet stepping up to move the bamboo from Toronto to Calgary,” the zoo acknowledged, “but fewer flights between China and Toronto as a result of the pandemic removed this option.
“The Calgary Zoo team has worked tirelessly with alternate bamboo suppliers to find a way to keep the giant pandas fed,” the statement continued, “despite misdirected shipments, slower than acceptable delivery times causing some poor quality bamboo that the giant pandas won’t eat, and concern with limited supplies. Forces beyond the zoo’s control could disrupt these remaining lines of supply at any time — and without warning.”
Nuke fuel sealed the deal
Calgary Zoo president Clément Lanthier told CBC News that “We have exhausted all of our capacity, and it’s too much of a risk for the welfare of the pandas” to try to keep them in Calgary any longer.
The pandas came to Calgary from the Toronto Zoo with their two cubs, Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, born on October 13, 2015.
Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, though popular with Calgary Zoo visitors, were on January 13, 2020 flown to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan, China.
The panda parents, Er Shun and Da Mao, had arrived at the Toronto Zoo in 2014, climaxing arrangements brokered in 2012 by then-Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, expedited by $3 billion in trade deals. One of those deals involved selling Canadian uranium to China to power nuclear reactors.
Zoos around the world looking for Noah’s Ark to keep them afloat
The impending return of the pandas to China is, for the moment, the most dramatic development in the international zoo community’s saga of seeking bare survival at the time of year, Easter through summer, that most zoos count upon for most of their visitor income.
A recent ANIMALS 24-7 resumé of zoo responses in Hong Kong, Europe, and elsewhere, Animals for ransom: zoos & the COVID-19 cash flow crunch, brought reports of many other zoos in other parts of the world undertaking similar measures, including appealing for government subsidies, seeking public donations, and threatening to downsize animal collections by culling hooved species to feed carnivores––already a routine practice of many and perhaps most big zoos for centuries.
Said the South African National Council of SPCAs, “Our Wildlife Protection Unit has been proactively checking on zoos,” most of them privately owned and operated in South Africa, as in much of the rest of the world, “to ensure that the correct measures are in place to ensure that the animals are cared for, in spite of the closure to the public.”
“Animals in a zoo are entrusted entities”
So far there seems to be no movement in South Africa, or most other nations, toward transitioning zoos to public ownership; but in Indonesia, where zoos have long been operated as politically influential private fiefdoms, suddenly there is zoo-led impetus toward acquisition and control by government as non-profit entities.
Even the Medan Zoo, owned and operated by District Business Development of Medan, is a for-profit institution, explained agency director Putrama al-Khairi to Voice of America reporter Anugrah Andriansyah.
Therefore the Medan Zoo, and others established on a similar basis, is ineligible for municipal subsidies.
“To save the animals and secure the zoo’s future,” Anugrah Andriansyah reported, “Putrama believes the attraction should be supervised and directed by city government.”
Said Putrama, “We have written to the government of Medan. We hope that [municipal management is] the best solution for the Medan Zoo.”
Agreed ProFauna Indonesia chair Rosek Nursahid, “Animals in a zoo are entrusted entities and the government needs to pay attention to this matter.”
“All animal in the Medan Zoo are in danger”
Wrote Anugrah Andriansyah, “Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry is reviewing how zoos operate, including how zoo permits are obtained, according to Nursahid.”
Meanwhile, Anugrah Andriansyah recounted, “On March 1, 2020, the Indonesian government announced the nation’s first two cases of COVID-19, and by mid-March the crowds had stopped visiting the 30-hectare zoo. On March 23, 2020, the attraction in North Sumatra closed along with other businesses to help slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.”
To keep the 270 Medan Zoo animals fed, the zoo “began collecting coins, one rupiah at a time,” Anugrah Andriansyah said.
Despite that, zoo publicist Aini Chaniago told the Jakarta Post that “All animals in the Medan Zoo are in danger of dying from hunger.”
$4 million a month profit in normal times?
The plight of the Medan Zoo is in microcosm that of all 57 zoos in Indonesia, with a cumulative collection of 70,000 animals and 22,000 staff, updated regional correspondent Arlina Arshad of the Singapore-based Straits Times.
“In a desperate bid to save hungry animals from being killed and fed to one another, the Indonesian Zoo Association has kicked off a fund-raising drive,” Arshad wrote.
“The zoos, whose income largely depended on ticket sales from the 50 million annual visitors, make around $10 million a month in total. Some $6 million goes towards their upkeep and operations,” Indonesian Zoo Association chair Rahmat Shah told Arshad.
“The association wrote to President Joko Widodo two weeks ago seeking financial assistance, but has yet to get a response,” Arshad continued. “On their part, the zoo operators have used cheaper feed substitutes, shortened the work hours of staff and even slashed their salaries by up to 50% to cut costs.”
“No one is facing financial difficulty to feed the animals”?
But not all privately owned Indonesian zoos are eager to give up what for some owners have been wildly profitable franchises.
As of April 28, 2020, reported Coconuts Bali, “The Natural Resources Conservation Center in Bali says that zoos and conservation centers here on the island can still manage to afford animal feed.”
Said Conservation Center official Prawono Meruanto, “No one is facing financial difficulty to feed the animals. Further, animal feed is fairly easy to procure around Bali, and only a few animals need food to be sent from outside of the island.”
There are three zoos on the island of Bali: the Bali Safari & Marine Park, which is part of the national Taman Safari chain owned and operated by the Manansang family; the much older and smaller Bali Zoo; and the Bali Bird Park.
“Prawono acknowledges that should the situation with COVID-19 continue as it is, zoos might be forced to reduce the feed portion after the month of May,” Coconuts Bali concluded.