Financial hardships: Houston Zoo keeps operation humming, ready for returning crowds

HOUSTON – Just because the Houston zoo is closed doesn’t mean the animals don’t need the same level of care they’ve always received. Providing that level of care is no easy feat when a pandemic keeps your paying customers away.

On Thursday, KPRC 2 got a first-hand look at how zoo officials are keeping the operation going during the shutdown.

“Just because we’re closed doesn’t mean that caring stops,” said Jackie Wallace, the zoo’s senior PR director.

Wallace said the zoo was able to secure a federal paycheck protection loan, which will keep everyone employed through the end of June.

“It’s not a lot of time,” Wallace said.

Wallace said 40% of the zoo’s $58 million budget comes from donations and ticket sales. Empty walkways, cafes and gift shops make it easy to see how those numbers are being affected. Compounding matters, the city announced it will likely have to defer it’s $10 million payment to the zoo.

“On a normal year, it was a nice piece of our operating budget, but in a year like this it’s going to be devastating,” Wallace said. “It’s going to be a big hit, you know, I’m not going to lie.”

As the zoo charts its financial future, what has not changed is care and love for the animals.

“One of the things that we’ve noticed that is a little different is some of the animals are responding a little differently,” said general curator Kevin Hodge.

Hodge said he’s noticed several of the animals are missing the crowds.

“They kind of crave that, they are craving that interaction,” Hodge said. “It’s kind of like us, we’re all a little bit sad right now. We can’t wait for the day we can go and hang out with friends again and give them a hug.”

Hodge said this means zookeepers are working a little harder to ensure the animals get extra love and attention. One of the clearest signs of that extra attention was the brightly colored streamers in the chimpanzee enclosure. Zookeepers threw 16-year-old Willie a birthday party and made sure he got his driver’s license.

Beyond the financial, the zoo also changed protocols after it is believed a staff member inadvertently infected tigers at the Bronx Zoo.

“When we found out about the Bronx Zoo it definitely was concerning for us and just caused us to really look at our protocols to make sure what we were doing couldn’t potentially harm the animals,” Hodge said.

Hodge said anyone working closely with primates, carnivores or other native birds and mammals must try to remain 6 feet away. Hodge said for those keepers who have to get closer they are required to wear gloves, goggles and change clothes before leaving the zoo. So far, none of the animals at the Houston Zoo have been infected with COVID-19.

As for the long term financial impact on the Zoo, Wallace said that depends on when and how it reopens.

“Whether we can reopen at full capacity with thousands of people a day is going to look a lot different on our balance sheet if we’re told we can only have 200 people at a time inside the zoo,” Wallace said.

The Zoo is keeping interest high through its webcams, which Wallace said has seen a significant spike in traffic. Zookeepers are also doing daily Facebook Live sessions at different exhibits.

If you would like to donate to the zoo online, visit HoustonZoo.org.