N.C. Zoo reopens after ‘challenging’ 3-month shutdown

Following record-setting 2019 attendance, zoo now faces major deficit

Posted 6/26/20

ASHEBORO — Spring at the North Carolina Zoo is synonymous with the oohs and aahs of kids, the excitement of family day trips and the noise of bustling plazas.

This year’s spring season, …

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N.C. Zoo reopens after ‘challenging’ 3-month shutdown

Following record-setting 2019 attendance, zoo now faces major deficit

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Posted

ASHEBORO — Spring at the North Carolina Zoo is synonymous with the oohs and aahs of kids, the excitement of family day trips and the noise of bustling plazas.

This year’s spring season, however, was vastly different.

On March 17, the zoo temporarily suspended its operations following Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 117, which prohibited mass gatherings in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. And after a nearly three-month hiatus, the zoo opened its doors to guests on June 15, with just five official days of spring — the zoo’s busiest season — left on the calendar.

“It has definitely impacted us to be closed for three months because we still had to care for the animals and the grounds,” said Debbie Fuchs, the public relations officer for the North Carolina Zoo. “Those costs didn’t go away. It’s been challenging.”

The zoo is projecting a loss of $2.6 million for the time missed this spring, based on revenue totals from previous spring seasons. In all, Fuchs said, the zoo is running at a $6 million deficit for 2020 so far, primarily due to their original estimated attendance increase that has since altered.

Earlier this year, the zoo announced record-setting attendance for 2019, totaling more than 917,000 visitors — including nearly 400,000 last spring.

Saying things have changed over the last few months would be an understatement.

Along with guests being absent, staff members who were able to work remotely were encouraged to do so, while zookeepers and other in-park staff worked staggered schedules to avoid coming into close contact with people not on their teams.

The animals went about their lives, albeit without the thousands of daily visitors, as keepers cared and built enrichment for them to stay busy. Some of them handled the calmness of the park better than others.

Residents like the red wolves, which typically spend most of their time hiding from guests, began hanging out in more open areas of their habitat. Social animals, such as the chimpanzees, seals and sea lions, appeared to enjoy it when new staff would come around to interact with them.

“The seals and sea lions were really interested in us because, according to the keepers, they kind of feed off of the energy of the guests,” Steve Gerkin, the interpretive programs manager for the zoo, said. “The smells, the visuals, the sounds, all of that is enriching for the animals. It’s a new experience each day for them.”

Gerkin and the rest of the zoo’s education team used the hiatus as an opportunity to grow the park’s digital audience through a variety of virtual programming.

Zoo EDventures, an online series hosted two or three times weekly on Facebook Live, is an extension of the in-person “EDventures at the Zoo” program, which aims to enrich student learning about animals and their habitats.

The series features a different animal or area of the park in each episode, averaging nearly 21,000 views per video and garnering attention from all over the world, including viewers from Libya, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada, Vietnam and Thailand.

“There’s all of these amazing places that people are coming from, and to know that our reach is that extended is really kind of fun,” Gerkin said. “They might not ever come here, but we can still spread the message of the zoo to those folks.”

Alongside Zoo EDventures and its Ed-Zoo-Cation series that encompasses a majority of its virtual programs, the zoo will also be offering its summer camps virtually, giving those who can’t make it to Asheboro a chance to participate.

“You can be a kid in Massachusetts and still take one of the zoo’s summer camps,” Fuchs said. “This is a way that we can safely offer all of the education and all of the fun of our camps without them actually having to be here.”

When the zoo reopened its doors to guests last week, the park implemented a few changes to promote guest safety, including reserved tickets — which you can only purchase in advance; no walk-ups are permitted — one-way walking paths, extra sanitation measures and limited entrances to the zoo.

To regain some of the lost revenue from missing the spring season, the zoo continues to charge full price for tickets — $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and $11 for children — despite all of its indoor amenities remaining closed throughout the reopening phase.

In addition to all of the changes made to the zoo’s original summer schedule, the premiere of the eight-part National Geographic WILD video series “World’s Biggest Zoo” — centered on the North Carolina Zoo and planned for August — will likely be pushed back to late 2020, according to Fuchs.

Despite all of the challenges thrown their way since March, the staff at the zoo continue to look for the positive in what has been a challenging situation.

“I think a lot of us have realized that we can do things that we didn’t know we could do,” Gerkin said. “We have folks who have learned how to be technology wizards in three months. I think it’s been a little bit of a confidence builder, too, like if we need to do this, by golly, we can do it.”

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