Virginia Zoo makes changes while prepping to reopen


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — While animals at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk are thriving, the zoo itself is en route to losing more than $2 million through the end of the year, thanks to closures because of COVID-19.

“It’s very quiet. It’s amazing that a place with nearly half a million visitors each year can be this quiet,” Virginia Zoo Director Greg Bockheim said.

Bockheim says it was strange to move through spring break season with no kids, when the zoo would usually have between 15,000 to 20,000 each week.

“When we closed in the middle of March, we furloughed about 50 percent of our staff on our foundation side. So, that’s about 50 people, and those are largely educators that work directly with our visitors either in outreach programs or with field trips here on grounds or with birthday parties. So, we do have a lot of staff who do deliver that educational value, but when there’s no visitors here, we really had to furlough them because we didn’t have that revenue to pay those salaries,” Bockheim said.

Financially, the COVID-19 closure has walloped the zoo.

“In this quarter, the fourth quarter, through July, we’re probably looking at a loss of about $1.6 million in revenue, and that’s ticket gate sales, all of our event sales, and those types of things. Then, as this continues, we’ll probably lose about $800,000 more with that limited entry to the zoo to December,” Bockheim said.

Bockheim continued: “We also have about a million dollars in expenses at the same time. So, it’s a double whammy, of course, from no revenue and still expenses for the staff that are still here. So, it’s a big challenge. We hope that it’s going to turn around and that, over the long term, we’ll be able to bring back the status of the zoo and the revenue that we had in the past.”

Zoo employees are doing all they can to get the zoo ready to reopen.

“We’ve been at workshops in our industry that tell us what makes people feel safe. So we’re getting all of those supplies, from hand sanitizers to a lot of messaging and directional signage. We’re making the zoo a one-way entry direction, so we’re leading the zoo to the left. So, you’ll enter and you’ll move through the exhibits to the left,” Bockheim said.

“We’ve created large maps that people will understand this before they enter the zoo what the rules are, what the guidelines we’re putting together are. Then, we also have what we call dynamic timing. We’ll try to sell most of our tickets online and limit the entry of visitors. So, on a busy day, we might have 4,000 people in the zoo. So, we’re going to limit that, probably, to 25 percent in the beginning. We’ll see how that goes and then move to maybe 50 percent if we feel like we can accommodate that many people safely.”

In the meantime, you can help the zoo by making a donation.

“We have an emergency fund right now, the Virginia Zoo Emergency Fund, that supports all of the things we do, especially our education programs,” Bockheim said.

Click here to donate to the Virginia Zoo Emergency Fund.

Bockheim says in the emergency fund online, you “can click on that and they can go to one of the projects that that fund supports. An interesting one of those is, because we do not have this revenue coming in, $6 from each membership goes to support our scientists in the field. So, even those people around the world who are studying tapirs or protecting tigers, they’re not getting the funds that we would generally give to them, because we just don’t have that money coming in, so it’s a challenge that really impacts animals in that way around the world.”

Through it all, Bockheim says the animals at the zoo are healthy and funding for their well-being has never been in jeopardy.

“We’re still able to provide all of the care, all of the food, everything we generally need to do with the animals.”

Bockheim says a number of baby animals have been born while zoo guests have been away and he says he is excited for people to finally be able to see the babies.

“We have had significant births. I think most people will know we have a baby Malayan Tapir that’s gone out swimming in his pool and everything with his parents. We have a baby sloth. We have had two baby bongos in the past two weeks. We have some really unique birds that have hatched. We’re expecting a giraffe any day. So, we’ve got these really great animals, babies that have been born, and all of our thousands of visitors just have not seen those yet.”

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