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While our zoos are closed

It’s been 4 weeks since we closed our zoos due to COVID-19. Executive Director, Simon Tonge tells us what it’s like to run a zoo with no visitors.

It’s interesting how rapidly it has become a cliché to say that these are unprecedented times…..but they are! By definition, in ‘unprecedented times’ we are making it up as we go along. There is no one to guide us, and there are no real templates to follow. What we do remember from our last enforced shut down, because of Foot and Mouth Disease, in 2001, is that a zoo without visitors is not really a zoo. It is a breeding centre and that means it looks, and behaves, differently.

Wild Planet Trust runs zoos, not breeding centres, though it does, of course, breed many Threatened and some Non-threatened species at its sites. Sadly, all three of those sites are shut, with no income, and we have no idea when they may open again. So, our zoos have become breeding centres; or have they? Given that we have no idea how long the zoos may be closed it is conceivable that, in the worst case scenario, one or more of them may be unable to re-open. That means re-homing a zoo full of animals at other, more fortunate, or richer, organisations, if such things exist. If that were to be the case, then breeding more animals that will just need to be found new homes would be irresponsible. If you doubt the potentially catastrophic consequences of uncontrolled breeding have a look at the Netflix documentary “Tiger King” – a truly jaw-dropping expose of appalling ‘zoo’ practice in the USA.

So we feel like we are in limbo, planning for the worst, and hoping for the best. Those of us who have not been furloughed under the Government’s scheme, and are still working at our sites, are extraordinarily privileged, because the sites are beautiful, the animals pleased to see us, and our days are very busy. You can still see some of our animals on our various web cams, and those of our members and putative visitors who are stuck at home with their children can use our education resources to assist with home schooling. So, in one sense, in engaging people with animals we are still doing one of the primary functions of a zoo, albeit in a virtual sense. Please stay engaged with us; yes, money is going to become a massive issue if we don’t reopen soon, and we need your financial help and support so here is the link to our Virgin Money Giving page. We are enormously grateful to those of you who have already provided such support, and we will put those resources to very good use.

One day, all this madness and sadness will end, and the world will have changed. However, we don’t see that the great conservation issues of our time, such as overpopulation, climate change, habitat destruction and pollution, will have gone away. They may even get worse, as people struggle to rebuild their personal livelihoods in the post-pandemic world. We want to resume our roles in addressing these conservation issues as soon as possible; but for that we need our zoos to be open and we don’t know when that may be.

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