Like many attractions and businesses affected by the coronavirus, the Little Rock Zoo has endured a challenging spring. Shut down since March 16, the zoo has not only lost gate admission but has seen its annual fundraiser Wild Wines, rescheduled to later in the year with no inkling as to how the pandemic will affect attendance.
Given the zoo is responsible for the feeding, health and maintenance of more than 500 specimens across 200 species, that’s a big, big problem. All told, zoo leadership estimates the financial hit for the period between March 16 through the end of May at between $1.2 and $1.4 million.
“The thing that’s particularly devastating about the timing of COVID is, it’s right during the middle of what would have been our busiest season,” said Susan Altrui, zoo director. “A typical beautiful spring day, we would have anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 people at the zoo. During that time is when we would have sold the most memberships, we would have had the largest gate attendance, we would have been earning the most revenue for the zoo.”
“What’s also devastating is we missed our spring break season. We have more visitors during spring break, about a 10-day time span, than we will do in an entire month. Losing all of spring break was terribly impactful for us.”
On May 20, Altrui told Little Rock media outlets the zoo had submitted its plan to reopen to the City of Little Rock and the Arkansas Department of Health for approval. The plan detailed the extensive measures the zoo would take to ensure the safety of guests, staff, and animals. Altrui said pending approval of that plan, she hoped to reopen to the public in early June.
The zoo is a department of the City of Little Rock, but only about 40 percent of its $6.6 million annual operating budget is directly covered by appropriations. The remaining 60 percent of funds must be generated from such things as memberships, gate admissions, concessions and gift shop sales and other such streams.
The zoo does receive additional revenue through the city’s one-cent sales tax, passed in 2011, generating an additional $600,000 to $700,000 per year. However, those funds are specifically restricted to use on capital projects, not operations.
Typically, Altrui said, the zoo has been successful in raising 60 percent of its budget, thanks in part to the work of the Arkansas Zoological Foundation, a wholly independent nonprofit that is set up to help augment funding.
“(AZF) consists of a separate board of directors and is primarily responsible for raising private dollars from nonprofit donations, corporate sponsorships and private family foundations,” she said. “They help supplement the zoo by raising money for capital projects, new habitats and new exhibits. They also help us raise money for education programs.”
Altrui said corporate sponsorships don’t feed into the operations revenue, but are invaluable in funding certain events and promotions. She’s also quick to point out that aside from notable exceptions – such as McClarty Automotive, Children’s Hospital, Centennial Bank, Hiland Dairy, Wright, Lindsey and Jennings and Snell Prosthetics – corporate sponsorships are relatively few and far between
“Corporate giving actually makes up a very, very small portion of the giving that we get,” she said. “We’ve had a lot more luck with individual giving than with corporate giving.”
The zoo’s financial picture is complicated further by the unique nature of the attraction. Unlike most private businesses or other city amenities like a swimming pool or park, the zoo can’t save money by closing down entirely or via wholesale furloughing of employees, as certain staffing levels are required to properly care for the animals. On top of that, of course, extra steps and equipment are required for the safety of all.
“We won’t make cuts in animal care. The protocols with animal care are to protect our staff and protect our animals,” she said. “We’ve shifted into two different groups, Team A and Team B. Any administrative staff that can work from home, we’ve sent home so we can cut down on potential transmission between groups.”
“We know that COVID-19 is zoonotic; there’s the potential for it to be spread to animals. There’s been tigers at the Bronx Zoo and now at another zoo, where it was spread to some other animals. So, we have to be extra vigilant and extra careful in what we do with the animals.”
“At our zoo, we were already using PPE when dealing with several of our animals. We use nitrile gloves when handling food or anything that goes into an animal exhibit. We’ve also increased disinfecting animals’ behind-the-scenes areas and in our animal staff areas.”
As stressful as the spring season has been, Altrui is quick to acknowledge the moral support the state’s only zoo has received from the community.
“We’ve been very fortunate in that when there’s a need in this community, it seems that people really rise to the occasion,” she said. “I’ve been very humbled at the way the public has wrapped their arms around us and provided us with love in this time. It’s really shown us how much they value our zoo.”
Altrui hopes this level of goodwill translates into donations from the public to help make up the deficit brought on by the pandemic. Financial contributions can be mailed directly to the zoo at 1 Zoo Drive, Little Rock, 72205, made out to the Arkansas Zoological Foundation. Or, donate online at ArkZooFoundation.org.