The animals are waiting for you to come back.
After the UK government instituted the country’s third pandemic-fuelled lockdown in January, the Wildwood Trust in Canterbury, Kent was forced to close to visitors for the third time since the pandemic began. That put the centre, like zoos and other conservation centres around the world, back in financial jeopardy as it waits out the pandemic. Wildwood Kent is looking forward to reopening at the beginning of April, when the UK government says it will ease restrictions.
That reopening won’t just serve humans looking to see some of the sanctuary’s critters. Wildwood Kent also serves as a vital role in the effort to rewind the countryside, and reopening could help get those plans back on track to restore some of the UK’s biodiversity in the wild.
Lynx, Dormouse, and Bears (Oh My)
Wildwood houses around 1,450 animals, representing 82 species. While the Trust’s specialty is in species native to Britain — smaller critters like dormice and red squirrels — it also has bigger predators like bison, wolves, lynx and bears. (Many larger predators, like lynx and bears, were once native to Britain, but were hunted out of extinction by the Middle Ages.)
Spending Big on Food
It’s not cheap to keep all these animals happy and healthy. The Trust spends more than $US15,000 ($19,358) per week on food alone. The zoo has said it lost five months of revenue when it was forced to close last year, creating a hole in its finances. The group is looking to raise $US660,000 ($851,730) in donations to help address the shortfall.
Conservation Efforts Put on Hold
Wildwood isn’t just a place where people can come for a visit with a dormouse (as adorable as that is). The charity, dubbed a centre for excellence in conservation research in 1999, also does conservation work on endangered species native to Britain, like the red squirrel. That work, too, was halted by the pandemic. The Trust said that many animal reintroductions originally planned for 2020 have been put on hold.
Rewilding has taken on increasing importance not just in the UK but around the world as conservationists and policymakers look to restore the balance of ecosystems disturbed by human activities and climate change. Last year, for example, conservationists reintroduced Tasmanian devils to the Australian mainland in an effort to help ecosystems there as well as the devils, which have been ravaged by a deadly transmissible cancer in Tasmania. Protecting nature could also help us avoid future pandemics and the spread of zoonotic diseases.
A Crisis for Zoos Everywhere
It’s not just Wildwood that’s experiencing the financial pinch of having to care for animals without visitors. Zoos, aquariums, and conservation parks around the world have experienced devastating financial setbacks over the past year. These institutions balance the massive cost of caring for animals with admission fees, donations and memberships, all of which were affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Oakland Zoo in California laid off 100 employees last summer as visitor attendance — which accounts for 90% of the zoo’s revenue — plummeted. The Chester Zoo in the UK said last month it had suffered a nearly $US14 ($18)-million loss since the pandemic began and was forced to put many of its conservation projects on hold.
Getting Little Help
The UK government last year opened a fund to support zoos, aquariums, and other conservation centres during the pandemic. But it placed a stipulation that to receive funding, institutions must have less than 3 months of financial reserves to be eligible for support. That left out many centres like Wildwood Kent. Zoo industry associations have urged the government to lift restrictions for the funds.
Fearing for the Future
“Like many organisations, we have experienced major financial losses during the pandemic, but unlike many others, we are unable to furlough many of our staff because of our commitment to animal welfare and husbandry, whether we are open or closed to the public,” six British zoos wrote in a letter to the government this week.