Chester Zoo, the UK’s biggest zoo, has revealed the coronavirus pandemic has already cost the wildlife charity a staggering £5m – and its gates could remain closed ‘indefinitely’.
The zoo revealed its financial situation after the government’s latest announcement on the easing of the lockdown failed to include a green light for large, outdoor attractions such as zoos to reopen. The charity will continue to lose over £1m a month despite exhaustive efforts to reduce costs and its use of the government’s furlough scheme.
Zoo bosses say they have been told by government representatives to prepare for their gates to remain closed ‘indefinitely’, despite being ‘Covid secure’ and able to safely limit numbers and enforce social distancing rules – something that public UK beaches, parks and other beauty spots cannot do.
With revenue from visitors making up 97% of its income, staff say the long period of closure (the zoo has been closed since 21 March) is having a “devastating impact” on the future of the UK’s most visited zoo.
It costs £465,000 a month just to care for the zoo’s 35,000 animals. With additional outgoings for utilities, insurance, maintenance, security and the basic administration services needed to keep ticking over, as well as global conservation projects and scientific research to carry out, the zoo says it needs £1.6m a month just to keep going.
While a Zoos Support Fund, set up by the government following successful lobbying from a consortium of zoos including Chester, has provided some welcome help to smaller organisations, larger charity zoos are not eligible for support – a huge blow to a sector that does not ordinarily seek any financial help from the government.
Jamie Christon, the zoo’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) said:
“As the UK’s biggest and most popular charity zoo, we’ve tried to stay positive during this pandemic. Our conservationists have continued to prevent extinction, our virtual days have cheered up the nation, and our learning resources have helped out thousands of home schooling families. We wanted to remain a beacon of hope.
But now, the government has ordered us to stay closed indefinitely and Chester Zoo is very much fighting for its future. This change in law has flicked a switch for us and, heartbreakingly, our lights are now flickering. Not being able to open, despite being a huge outdoor site with all the necessary safety measures in place, is having a devastating impact of the future survival of this much-loved charity zoo. We’re heading towards debt in excess of £24m by the end of 2020 – this will financially cripple us.
We absolutely refuse to cut corners when it comes to caring for the animals. But ensuring that each and every one of the 35,000 animals at the zoo is receiving the best possible care, every single day, comes at a huge financial cost. Not being able to open, with such massive outgoings, puts the future of the zoo itself at risk of extinction.”
Chester Zoo, the most visited zoo in the UK with more than two million people passing through its gates in 2019, is a registered conservation and education charity.
To highlight its readiness for reopening and its ability to keep people safe, the zoo has already put in place measures to ensure that its 128 acres of outdoor space is ‘Covid secure.’
Mr Christon continued:
“While we see pictures of public beaches, parks and UK beauty spots busy with people, our zoo – a huge outdoor space, with 16km of pathways, and numerous measures in place to ensure that we can provide a safe environment for guests – sits empty.
We plan to heavily limit visitor numbers, we’ve installed self-scanning ticket lanes, floor markings, one-way systems, multiple cleaning and hand sanitisation points, a huge amount of signage and protective screens in all of our key locations and service areas. We’ve also trained staff to ensure that social distancing rules are followed at all times. People will be safer here than in public spaces, as we know can manage numbers and social distancing.
Much smaller, private gardens are opening up this week, which is positive as the great outdoors is proven to offer benefits to mental health and wellbeing. However, we and our 128 acres of gardens have to remain closed. It’s possible we’ll be given permission to open our indoor retail shop later this month, but not our massive outdoor site. While we support the need to carefully lift the lockdown, we’re under enormous financial pressure and these things don’t stack up.”
Chester Zoo’s 80 global projects are fighting to prevent the extinction of highly threated species both in the UK and in all corners of the world.
But despite a host of cost-cutting measures already in place to protect the organisation during the pandemic, including directors and staff taking voluntary pay cuts, half of its workforce placed on furlough and major development projects put on hold, zoo bosses are now fearful over the future of the zoo and its species-saving work.
Mr Christon added:
“We are not prepared to give up this fight and are continually lobbying government across all relevant departments, at all levels. We know we can provide a well-managed, safe environment for our visitors, staff and animals and have invested in all of the required safety features set out by the government, and more. Visitors carefully returning to the zoo is our lifeline.
Chester Zoo contributes over £83.1 million to the regional economy, supports over 1,700 jobs, protects wildlife in more than 30 countries around the world and engages over 150,000 young people – the future of our planet – every year. At a time when global environmental pressures escalate, the seriousness of losing a conservation charity cannot be stressed enough.”