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

Sicamous will have a new locally-owned option for grabbing a bite on the go as the Snacktastic food trailer opened at the start of March. (Kelly Hesleton/Facebook)
Curbside food trailer gives Sicamous a new dining option

Snacktastic owner Dawn Backs grateful for support from family and community

A B.C. government-run cannabis retail outlet was proposed for a building to be constructed at the Salmon Arm SmartCentres site. (File photo)
Province backs away from plans for Salmon Arm cannabis store

BC Cannabis Store was proposed to be in building to be constructed at shopping centre

COVID-19 numbers provided by Interior Health show Salmon Arm and Revelstoke in the 200-plus range from January 2020 to February 2021 while Vernon, with a larger population, tallied more than 600 over the 14 months. (BC Centre for Disease Control map)
14 months of COVID-19 data show Kamloops cases doubling Vernon’s

Jan. 1, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021: 605 cases reported for Vernon, 243 for Salmon Arm, 1,246 for Kamloops

A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
36 new cases of COVID-19, one death in Interior Health

The number of active cases in the region is at 366

Mussel inspection sit set up at B.C.-Alberta border. (Contributed)
Okanagan Basin Water Board calls for stronger invasive mussel protection

Letter sets out six recommendations for environment minister George Heyman to consider

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the B.C. legislature press theatre to give a daily update on the COVID-19 pandemic, April 6, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. nears 300,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, essential workers next

564 new cases, four deaths, no new outbreaks Thursday

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled Feb. 26 that the estate of deceased Sooke man and Hells Angels prospect Michael Widner is to be divided between his wife and his secret spouse. (Black Press Media file photo)
Estate of deceased Vancouver Island Hells Angels prospect to be divided between wife and secret spouse

Michael Widner’s 2017 death left a number of unanswered questions

This Dec. 2, 2020 photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows vials of its Janssen subsidiary’s COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Johnson & Johnson via AP
Canada approves Johnson & Johnson’s 1-shot COVID-19 vaccine

It is the 4th vaccine approved in Canada and the 1st that requires just a single dose

Walter Gretzky father of hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky waves to fans as the Buffalo Sabres play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky, father of the Great One, dies at 82

Canada’s hockey dad had battled Parkinson’s disease and other health issues

Riverside Centre includes a theatre hosting local plays, visiting musicians and dance troupes. It is also used for community events such as public meetings and fundraisers. Photo Town of Princeton
Penticton Fire Department pulled a kayaker from Okanagan Lake on Wednesday after he had fallen out of his boat and called 911. The man was taken to the hospital for treatment. (Western News - File)
Kayaker rescued from Okanagan Lake after falling in and calling 911

The Penticton Fire Department’s Marine Rescue pulled him out suffering from severe cold

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
Second death reported in Kelowna General Hospital COVID-19 outbreak

A total of seven cases have been identified at the hospital: six patients and one staff

The Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce’s general manager Dan Proulx, left, hosted a virtual Official Opposition town hall meeting with Shadow Cabinet Minister Small Business Pat Kelly, right, and North Okanagan-Shuswap MP Mel Arnold March 3, 2021. (Screenshot)
Tourism key to business recovery in North Okanagan-Shuswap: MP

Easing travel restrictions, limiting taxation and debt management critical to COVID-19 economic recovery

Thomas Kruger-Allen is expected to be sentenced Friday, March 5, 2021.
Sentencing expected Friday for 2019 Penticton beach attack

Defense wants 12 to 18 months for beach assaults that left one of his victims with brain injury

Most Read