In an effort to recoup some of its financial losses after a two-month closure due to COVID-19, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is holding a fundraiser to try to bring in $250,000 by this Sunday, Sept. 20.
The online donation drive is called the ZOO-A-THON. The donor who contributes the most money will be able to name the mandrill monkey that was born at the zoo in early August.
“It’s been depressing, disappointing and exciting at the same time,” the zoo’s Executive Director Tony Vecchio said about the May reopening. “Just having people back is wonderful, but we're certainly not the attendance we should be at.”
Since May, Vecchio said, the attendance has been about 60% of what it is normally. In order to keep the zoo as safe as possible, the zoo has implemented many social distancing changes, including one-way walking traffic, the closure of some gift shops and a restaurant, and extra disinfecting and cleaning throughout the day.
The two months lost to the pandemic meant losing out on $4.6 million in expected revenue. The city of Jacksonville passed a bill to help some of the city-owned facilities, which supplied the zoo with $4 million, but because it’s generated just 70% of its normal revenue since reopening, it still faces a multi-million-dollar budget hole.
There were some great weekends for attendance throughout the summer, Vecchio said, but the crowds have started to shrink lately.
Vecchio said, “Now that the kids are back in school, weekdays have been very slow. So when you ask, ‘Are we breaking even on any given day?’ I'd say the majority of days we're not.”
And it’s even more expensive to run the Jacksonville Zoo then before the pandemic, due to the additional safety measures and closure of money-generating gift shops and a restaurant.
The zoo hasn’t had to cut any of its employees, but positions that employees left in recent months haven’t been filled to save money.
“We came within one day of pay cuts for the management staff,” Vecchio said. “That just happened to be the day that the [federal] CARES Act [aid disbursed by the city] came through.”
The zoo has also had to largely cut its support of several conservation programs.
And a “repair and replacement” fund for exhibits and equipment has been depleted.
“When something breaks now, we have to look at how essential it is that we need to fix it immediately,” Vecchio said. “Can we wait a few months to fix it? Can we figure out a way to do without it?”
But despite the zoo’s financial struggles, Vecchio said they in no way affect how the animals are fed and cared for.
“There are other places we could cut the budget if we needed to before we would ever sacrifice care of the animals,” he said.
The ZOO-A-THON will include a one-hour televised finale on Sept. 20 at 6:30 p.m. on News4Jax, WJCT News’ TV partner.
Vecchio said the financial concerns are being felt in zoos across the country.
“And I know there's 230 other zoos and aquariums out there that are watching us,” Vecchio said. “We're all trying to help each other in the zoo community right now. And if this is a success, the fact it's so unique and innovative for a zoo or aquarium — it's gonna be watched very closely by the entire zoo community.”
Vecchio hopes donations are enough to sustain the zoo until next year in what’s typically the busiest period: the spring and early summer.
Sky Lebron can be reached at email@example.com, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.