The government announced the opening its £100 million Zoo Animals Fund last week – but it has now been revealed some zoos cannot access the money. In addition, large zoos have said the maximum amount of individual grants available through the fund – £730,000 – would only be enough to feed and service animals for a matter of weeks.
Dr Mark Pilgrim, CEO of Chester Zoo in the North West, told Express.co.uk the funding would not cover even half of the zoo’s running costs for a single month.
He said: “While we’re in shutdown, if we just talk about what it costs to look after and service the animals, then we’re talking about £450,000 a month.”
However, he added the total running costs for the zoo come to between £1.6 to £1.8 million per month, so the fund “doesn’t scratch the itch.”
And ZSL – the group behind London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo – told Express.co.uk the government’s zoo fund is “deeply disappointing.”
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A spokesperson said: “12 weeks of lockdown placed ZSL in an extremely perilous financial situation. While ZSL welcomes all financial support for zoos, Defra’s zoo fund is deeply disappointing; tailored to smaller zoos it has a maximum grant size that would not feed ZSL’s 20,000 animals for a month.”
With many zoos facing financial struggles, concerns have also been raised about what would happen to the animals in their care if a mass shutdown occurred.
In order for zoos in the UK to get a license, emergency measures must be in place in the event the zoo is forced to close.
According to the Chester Zoo CEO, this usually involves co-operating with other zoos so animals could be transferred as part of a breeding programme if financial trouble did arise.
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However, he added: “What we didn’t do is have a plan to do it when every other zoo in the country is failing. So we haven’t got that mass failure plan; we have a single zoo failing plan.”
This puts the future of tens of thousands of zoo animals into uncertainty – even though Dr Pilgrim said such an event is unlikely.
He said: “I think it’s an extremely unlikely scenario. It’s unlikely, but of course we are facing huge financial issues. But it’s not something that we’d do here. I’d do everything in my power to avoid it happening here, including selling my house.”
Chester Zoo in the North West is one of the largest and most-visited zoos in Britain. Dr Pilgrim said the government’s funding is not even available to them, despite 35,000 animals being in their care.
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This is because zoos have to be on the verge of bankruptcy in order to be applicable – something Chester Zoo has to avoid.
Dr Pilgrim said: “All of us love animals, and actually, the fact that the government has put up £100 million grant to make sure that the animals are looked after at those zoos that are failing is fantastic.
“So it is an emergency fund for those zoos on the very brink of bankruptcy. So those zoos like Chester which are successful charity businesses – while we’ve got a massive hole in our finances, we’re not on the brink of bankruptcy. So we don’t meet the criteria to access any of the funds.
“The problem with it is as soon as that’s announced – and for those zoos that are failing it’s fantastic – for Chester what it means is everybody thinks: ‘Oh that’s crazy, £100 million available from the government. Why are they still fundraising? We don’t need to give them any money, they’re fine.” And actually it’s not the case at all. So it actually works against us, rather than for us.
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“It’s not about saving the zoos, it’s an animal fund. It’s for rehoming, or making sure that if an organisation gets into serious financial trouble then the animals aren’t put down. And hey, that’s fine and I support that.”
The vast majority – about 97 percent, according to Dr Pilgrim – of the zoo’s funding comes from visitors.
But with a second winter lockdown possible amid rising cases – particularly in the North West – it remains to be seen whether an already perilous situation will be made even worse.
A Chester Zoo staff member delivers food to a sunbear enclosure
Chester Zoo is currently managing to make a profit on the reduced number of visitors it is currently seeing, given the summer season.
However, the CEO warned: “Another lockdown or forced closure for us in August would be really challenging.”