Barry, a two-toed sloth, eats his lunch at Little Ray’s Nature Centre in Sarsfield, Ont. on Thursday, February 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Barry, a two-toed sloth, eats his lunch at Little Ray’s Nature Centre in Sarsfield, Ont. on Thursday, February 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

‘I’ve been pushed to my absolute breaking point;’ Canadian zoos struggle to survive

Other zoos and aquariums across the country say they’ve also reached their breaking points

Last week, Paul Goulet’s 10-year-old daughter quietly went to his wife with worry about her father.

“It’s like he’s here, but he’s not really here,” she said.

That nearly broke Goulet, the owner of Little Ray’s Nature Centre, a zoo and animal rescue organization with locations in Hamilton and Ottawa.

Usually an eternal optimist, Goulet said the pandemic is killing his business and wearing him down.

He’s cut costs where he can, but the vast majority of his costs are fixed — the snakes, sloths and tortoises still have to eat.

Gross revenue is down 94 per cent, he said, due to the forced closures and capacity limits during the pandemic, and he’s taken out loans totaling more than $900,000 to help pay the bills.

“I’ve been pushed to my absolute breaking point,” Goulet said.

Other zoos and aquariums across the country say they’ve also reached their breaking points.

Jim Facette, the executive director of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, said institutions across the country are having a hard time.

“They’re hanging on, but it’s a struggle,” Facette said.

He said some of the facilities qualify for the federal wage subsidy program and have received support, but others are not eligible, including those that are owned by another level of government, like the Toronto Zoo, which is owned by the City of Toronto.

“Our institutions are unique, you can’t just shut the lights, lock the door and leave,” Facette said.

“The Number 1 thing they want though, I hear this all the time, is they want to open.”

Cherry Brook Zoo in Saint John, N.B., shuttered its doors last year largely due to the pandemic and the uncertainty going forward, Facette said.

Zoos have an entire revenue-generating ecosystem that includes hosting corporate events, weddings and the like, he said. The Zoo de Granby in Quebec had to cancel more than 30 weddings last year.

Facette has spent a lot of his time lobbying various governments during the pandemic to figure out how to keep zoos and aquariums afloat.

“We need to increase capacity when they are open, so we’ve asked if they’d consider rapid testing as part of reopening strategies,” he said.

“We haven’t heard back.”

For Dolf DeJong, the CEO of the Toronto Zoo, the last year has been a trying one.

Last year, when China imposed a lockdown in Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus originated, DeJong said the zoo began stockpiling food for the animals.

They were shut down for two months in the spring during the first lockdown, then were able to do drive-thru visits for about a month before members were allowed back in at a significantly reduced capacity.

Then they moved to a pre-booked model from July until they reverted to drive-thrus in late November. They closed their doors again on Dec. 26 when the province issued a stay-at-home order.

The zoo had about 600,000 guests last year, DeJong said, about a third of those coming from the drive-thru. Daily guests last summer peaked at 5,000 – half of what they used to see the previous summer.

They’ve been able to raise about $1 million through their non-profit arm for a program called Zoo Food For Life, which is about enough to cover the cost of food for the facility’s 5,000 animals.

January and February are historically down months for the zoo, DeJong said.

“Being closed right now doesn’t hurt as badly as it hurt last year being closed on the Friday of March Break,” DeJong said.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to host guests on the new April break, that the weather will be great, and we have Easter in there. We’d like to think we can start rallying from these early in the year losses.”

For Goulet, he said he has used every possible government program for help, including the wage and rent subsidy programs, which have kicked in about $240,000.

But he needs about $840,000 for Little Ray’s to survive to the end of this year.

The company’s biggest money maker, he said, are animal festivals that run from January to April.

“None of those are happening,” he said.

Provincial restrictions have eased somewhat in Ottawa and Hamilton, so Little Ray’s is now allowed to have small groups inside. They’re also doing live Zoom shows now, but they only bring in about five per cent of the money the live shows at schools and birthday parties used to.

“I’m happy we’re open, so instead of losing $80,000 a month, we’ll lose maybe $60,000,” Goulet said. “It will curb our losses, but we’re still losing money at massive rates.”

He has turned to the public for help with a GoFundMe campaign that has raised nearly $200,000 from more than 2,000 people in just over a week.

His supporters also organized a bottle drive where they collected some 200,000 bottles.

“We’re slowly trying to turn the ash into something and that’s only because we’ve had a ton of public support,” Goulet said.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Calgary zooCoronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

School District 27 (SD27) issued notice Thursday, Feb. 25 of a COVID-19 exposure at Mountview Elementary School. (Angie Mindus photo)
School district reports positive COVID-19 case in Williams Lake elementary school

A letter went home to families of Mountview Elementary School

The City of Williams Lake is asking for public feedback on whether it should explore the opportunity to host a Greater Metro Hockey League team in Williams Lake. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
City of Williams Lake seeks feedback on hosting junior hockey league team

A league expansion application in Quesnel is also pending

A rainbow shining on Kelowna General Hospital on May 12, 2020 International Nurses Day. (Steve Wensley - Prime Light Media)
New COVID cases trending down in Interior Health

24 new cases reported Thursday, Feb. 25, death at Kelowna General Hospital

LADDER USED IN FIRE FIGHT: While smoke billows out of the second floor of the Maple Leaf Hotel, members of the Williams Lake Volunteer Fire Department fight to contain the blaze. The department was called out Tuesday morning to battle the blaze that wreaked havoc on the interior of the 57-year-old hotel. One man, Harold Hurst of Riske Creek, died in the fire. (Ernest Engemoen photo - Williams Lake Tribune, April 12, 1977)
FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Ladder used in fire fight

The department was called out Tuesday morning to battle the blaze

Provincial funding in the amount of $300,000 has been announced for the Cariboo Regional District’s plans to improve the Anahim Lake Airport runway. (CRD photo)
$300,000 provincial funding to fuel Anahim Lake Airport runway upgrade

The recovery grant is one of 38 announced to support jobs in rural communities

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen, all 20, drown in the Sooke River in February 2020. (Contributed photos)
Coroner confirms ‘puddle jumping’ in 2020 drowning deaths of 3 B.C. men

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen pulled into raging river driving through nearby flooding

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Vancouver International Women in Film Festival kicks off March 5.
Women in Film Festival features two B.C. filmmakers

The 16th annual festival kicks off March 5, 2021

Most Read