• Madagascar spider tortoise

    A baby Madagascar spider tortoise, hatched at the Toronto Zoo on May 2, 2020 — the zoo’s first successful reproduction of the critically endangered species. (Photo: The Toronto Zoo)

In spite of major revenue losses due to COVID-19 closures, Canada’s top zoos are keeping animal care at the forefront of their operations and making efforts to connect with their communities in new and creative ways.

Since closing their doors, the Calgary Zoo has had to temporarily reduce their staff by just over 60 per cent — roughly 250 people. 

“We depend quite heavily on the revenue generated by guests visiting the zoo as well as participation in a variety of different programs and educational opportunities that we deliver,” says Steven Ross, chief development officer for the Calgary Zoo. “It’s tough to say but we’ve scaled down our operations anywhere that we can.”

According to Ross, if the zoo remains closed from now until September 1, they will see a projected revenue loss of $27 million. However, the zoo is maintaining their high animal care standards.

“One area we’ve held firm on is our animal care does continue to operate as it did before,” says Ross. “Our animal care team is still on site, caring for our animals 24 hours a day.”

While the zoo is closed, staff are coming up with new ways to keep their community engaged with the animals and conservation efforts, including “Daily Dose at Home” programming. The pre-recorded videos are posted on Facebook each day to continue educating the public about conservation and provide updates about how the animals are doing. A new species is showcased every day. 

“The response has been incredible,” says Ross. “We are getting viewership from all across Canada and all across the world. People really want that connection to nature at this time.”

Watch: A recent “Daily Dose at Home” video from the Calgary Zoo all about tiger training:

In Ontario, the Toronto Zoo has also found ways to adapt to the COVID-19 reality. Aside from receiving emergency funding from the city to maintain operations, they have also engaged the public in their “Zoo Food for Life” campaign. 

In a single week, the zoo raised $500,000 – enough money to feed its animals for six months. The campaign was led by the Toronto Zoo Wildlife Conservancy and started out with a goal of $100,000.

“For us, that’s a big deal,” says Dolf DeJong, CEO of the Toronto Zoo. “This was a really impressive campaign that raised people’s literacy of the animals’ diets. We have animals from across the world with highly specialized needs and we can’t just go down to the grocery store and procure what they need.” 

DeJong says the zoo is now thinking about how they might adapt their site to safely accommodate visitors once the province begins to reopen. 

“We are considering options like running a drive-through zoo as a soft opening option,” he says. “We are constantly challenging and evaluating our model and thinking about how else we can reach out and connect with people.” 

DeJong says a variety of factors must be considered in the adaptation process, including, first and foremost, the safety of visitors and animals. After observing work from other zoos, DeJong says he is confident there is a public appetite for something like a drive-through zoo. 

“After COVID, in a world where people have been self-quarantined for a very long time, they’re going to be looking for opportunities to get out of the house — to have some really wonderful adventures and to reconnect with the community in a safe way.”