Audubon and other large zoos and aquariums plead for financial help

Congress left large non-profits out of the initial paycheck protection loans
Published: May. 14, 2020 at 10:48 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - In a remote, wooded area of the Algiers, the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center hopes for a baby boom.

Roth, a female giraffe, keeps a close eye on Michelle Hatwood, the General Curator of the facility.

“I think she is wondering if I have any food because she is very pregnant,” Hatwood explained.

Here, Audubon has teamed up with the San Diego Zoo Global to breed animals.

Dubbing their partnership “The Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife,” the organizations aim to create a haven for more than two dozen mammal and bird species, many of which are endangered or declining in population in the wild.

Since the first adult giraffes arrived here in 2017, eleven baby giraffes have been born.

“They’re a huge draw for zoos to have," Hatwood said. "Everyone wants to see the giraffes. It is an animal everyone seems to love.”

COVID-19 lockdowns brought furloughs and cuts to both organizations, including the San Diego Zoo and the sprawling San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

“The impact is huge for us," said Shawn Dixon, Chief Operating Office of San Diego Zoo Global. "We rely on revenue streams. We rely on income.”

As is the case for many zoos nationwide, the Audubon closures come at the worst possible time, when the facilities are normally packed with visitors.

“These facilities are not just entertaining places, they’re purposeful places," said Dan Ashe, President of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "They’re cornerstones in the their communities.”

During the period of March through June, Audubon usually generates about 44 percent of its annual revenues.

“This has really been a gut punch for many of our members,” Ashe said.

The San Diego facilities held off on layoffs for a month into the coronavirus lockdown in California.

“At a certain point in time, we felt like we had to furlough some staff members," Dixon said. "It was extremely painful on all of us, painful on the community.”

Neither organization qualified for loan money from the paycheck protection program passed by Congress since it exempted non-profits with more than 500 employees, leaving some of the largest and highest rated zoos in the country without any government assistance.

Audubon cares for 15,000 creatures at a cost of $70,000 per month.

Ashe said members zoos are, "getting by right now, but the longer this goes the more vulnerable they are.”

Another potential casualty is conservation programs run by zoos and aquariums, such as Audubon’s $250,000/year effort to breed and raise endangered whooping cranes and Mississippi sandhill cranes.

San Diego is renowned for its global reach, including efforts to save endangered white rhinos.

“We make sure our animals have the best care everyday,” Hatwood said. “They’re our top priority, no matter what happens with COVID.”

The AZA estimates its members, collectively, spend about $250 million dollars annually on conservation efforts around the world.

“The bottom is certain to fall out of that number in 2020,” Ashe said.

When the federal government got out of the business of preserving whooping cranes last year, the Audubon and Dallas Zoos stepped in to fill the void.

“Those kind of activities are going to be in jeopardy," Ashe said.

While Dixon pointed out San Diego Zoo Global has continued its conservation efforts, “there’s a limit to what we can do.

“If this goes on for years, I don’t know where we’re going to be,” Dixon said, “but we do know we need help from our government.”

The U.S. House could vote this week on yet another round of stimulus, a $3-billion bill which includes money for large non-profits.

However, critics have questioned the size of the package as the national debt reaches unprecedented heights.

Ashe, a former congressional staffer, looks for some compromise to eventually emerge from the House and Senate.

To donate to the Audubon and for more information visit their website here.

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