DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Blank Park Zoo’s annual gala featured all of a telethon’s trappings: a studio stage decorated with exotic potted plants. Fundraising pitches. Scripted banter between a tux-wearing host and a hostess in a glittering, sequined dress. Canned applause.
It was, CEO Anne Shimerdla said, unusual. The gala - or rather, the “VIRTUAL ZOOBILATION LIVE” - had always been held in person.
But for Shimerdla, who assumed the zoo’s top position this summer, the Oct. 3 fundraiser on YouTube was just another quirk in a year full of them.
An employee of the zoo for 24 years who has held every role from education coordinator to human resources manager to cash register clerk, Shimerdla had expected to become CEO in 2020, succeeding her retiring boss, Mark Vukovich. Like every other zoo leader in the country, though, she was not ready for the business realities of operating a public attraction during a pandemic.
Since Blank Park Zoo began operating year-round in 2001, Shimerdla said, the public has been able to visit all but four days a year. She could not recall an extended shutdown such as the one that ran 65 days from mid-March to May 22, when Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered closures to hold the coronavirus at bay.
“I don’t think there’s been anything like this in our industry,” she told the Des Moines Register.
The pandemic began just as the weather was warming and the zoo’s busy season was about to begin. The two-month closure was tough. And since then, the zoo has limited visitors with timed ticketing to prevent crowding and maintain social distance.
All told, Shimerdla estimates that admissions are down about 50%, as are memberships and revenues from other zoo experiences, like train and carousel rides and giraffe feedings. She projects the zoo will lose about $1 million this fiscal year, which ends March 31.
Typically, according to the zoo’s past tax filings, about one-third of the zoo’s annual revenue comes from admissions and memberships, with another 40% from donations and grants. The rest is from various sources, such as rentals of zoo facilities for events.
“That was quite a challenge, particularly in the midst of a busy season,” she said of the shutdown.
The zoo’s financial performance varies significantly from year to year. But from 2007-17, the zoo grossed about $1.5 million a year after expenses. (As a nonprofit, the zoo puts excess revenue back into its operations, Shimerdla said.)
As of March 31, 2019, the most recent date in public tax disclosures, the zoo had about $20 million in assets. About 90% of that was tied to the value of the land and buildings. The zoo reported $946,000 in cash at the time and another $124,000 incoming from pledged donations and grants.
Association of Zoos & Aquariums President Dan Ashe said executives in his industry could not easily shed costs as admissions dropped during the pandemic. The most significant expense - the care of the animals - does not change just because visitors stop showing up.
The Blank Park Zoo estimates its animal care costs are about $2.3 million a year, between food, bedding, cleaning supplies, utilities, veterinarian bills and zookeeper salaries.
“You can’t furlough animals,” Ashe said. “The zoos had to continue to function, really, at close to 100%.”
Because it is smaller than some of its counterparts around the country, Des Moines’ zoo emerged from the first months of the pandemic in slightly better shape. Of the 240 zoos and aquariums that are part of his organization, Ashe said the average member is losing $1 million a month.
He said zoos were able to offset some of those losses through forgivable federal loans as part of the Paycheck Protection Program, an element of the stimulus package passed in late March. For its part, Blank Park Zoo received about $380,000 to pay employee salaries for two months.
Ashe said zoos hope Congress will provide more aid in another stimulus package. The aid could include another round of forgivable loans. Ashe also said zoos would be eligible for some of the $30 million for raising and rescuing endangered or threatened species included in the Heroes Act stimulus package that House Democrats passed but which stalled in the Senate.
He said his members also hope Congress will provide more aid to state and local governments, with added flexibility for where that money can go. He believes some elected officials will want to provide funds to help keep their local zoos open.
For her part, Shimerdla said the zoo is trying to cut back some spending. It has five open full-time positions and employed about half as many part-time staffers this summer as it normally does. The zoo also deferred some maintenance costs, like replacing old signs and asphalt, spokesman Ryan Bickel said.
Since Blank Park Zoo reopened on May 22, it has erected barriers around cashier stands and required visitors to wear masks. Shimerdla said the zoo has not had to sacrifice any spending on animals.
“Those are fixed costs,” she said. “As a leadership team, our animals will be most important.”
The zoo also has tried to adjust other operations to the pandemic. Its early childhood education programs shifted online, with staff teaching a series of lessons on YouTube.
In addition to its gala and silent auction at the beginning of the month, Blank Park Zoo is hosting its “Night Eyes” Halloween events, another important source of revenue, Shimerdla said.
The staff also has tried to raise additional money through events like a “Mayor of Blank Park Zoo” election. Compared to human campaigns, there’s no effort to pretend that money isn’t the main issue, with candidate donations literally equaling votes.
As of the most recent campaign contribution filing deadline, Barnaby the Aldabra Tortoise has proven to be top choice of the donor class, edging out Meatball the California Sea Lion and Mr. Dave the Toad.
Bickel said the zoo’s commitment to its animals would not change even if the pandemic continues “deep into 2021 or beyond” - though he acknowledged the need for assistance in carrying out the zoo’s other efforts.
“Our ability to be healthy financially without deep cuts to programming will depend greatly on the support of the community to the nonprofit Blank Park Zoo,” he said in an email. “We have made a great commitment to the animals in our care and they are the first priority.”
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