Utica Zoo Struggles During COVID-19 Pandemic
COVID-19 has taken a toll on businesses across the country. As WAMC’s Jackie Orchard found out, zoos are having a wild ride during the pandemic as well.
Some parts of life at the Utica Zoo are the same as before the COVID-19 pandemic, like this flamingo mating dance on a recent day.
But Executive Director Andria Heath says everything about how the Utica Zoo used to function had to change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She says animal handlers would stand amid crowds of kids while they pet a lizard or a snake for the first time – which can no longer happen. She says before, interaction was encouraged for zoo visitors to learn more about conservation research and endangered species, but that’s discouraged now.
Other aspects of the zoo are being seen in a new light today — like the $60,000 grant it received for a new playground.
“But with the pandemic we really can’t let children play on it because they’ll be touching it, running at each other with coughing and sneezing and just being kids,” Heath said.
Although the playground is newly built, Heath is postponing the ribbon cutting until spring, when she hopes there will be a readily available vaccine.
The Utica Zoo is a non-profit that receives a subsidy from Oneida County of about $300,000 a year. Heath says in 2011, the annual budget was about $800,000 a year but the zoo has grown and the budget is now about $2.3 million, most raised through donations, animal adoptions, admission, and special events.
“Like an annual Brew Fest, Wine in the Wilderness, Spooktacular Extravaganza…We also have a lot of education programs, birthday parties, zoomobiles, etc,” Heath said. “But every one of those items that I just mentioned to you have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in fact we were closed to the public due to the New York state executive order for 107 days.”
As New York went on PAUSE, the Utica Zoo was shuttered from March through July.
“And the problem with that is, that is our peak season and about 70% of our annual revenue is achieved during those summer months,” Heath said.
Heath says the pandemic has led to a budget deficit it of about $1 million dollars, and fears there’s no way to bridge that gap.
“And we couldn’t cut the expenses that dramatically because we were still taking 24 hour a day care of our animals and that meant staff time, food, utilities, veterinary care, everything that goes into taking care of the zoo,” Heath said.
She says she was trying to make up for it with new events like Bright Nights At The Utica Zoo, for which they erected several holiday light structures for families to walk around, see Santa Claus, and attend a live reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” But the zoo had to cancel the event on December 3 due to an increase in local coronavirus infections.
Heath says revenue from admissions was higher than last year’s numbers in September, October, and November – likely due to people tired of being cooped up inside. But that momentum is starting to drop off as the weather gets colder. Instead, the zoo is reminding supporters as the holidays approach that they can make a donation in someone’s name as a tax deductible gift.
Heath says it’s good for people to remember that in a time when we are all encouraged to physically distance and many gyms are closed, the zoo spans over 80 acres, 30 of which are developed, and the zoo is open 363 days a year.
“So someone can take a brisk walk a few times around the zoo and feel like they’re getting a few miles in and at the same time stop and look at an exotic or a domestic animal,” Heath said.
Heath wants people to know the zoo is safe, with every staff member masked up, even if they spend more time with the animals than people. Like Stephanie Hylinski, a lead keeper at the Utica Zoo.
“So right now in the children’s zoo I’m working with the pigs, alpacas, zebu, the red fox, our pallas cat Tater who is one of my favorites, he’s super cute, and then some other kind of farm type animals- goats, and sheep, and chickens and other animals like that,” Hylinski said.
Hylinski says the pandemic has taken away the interactive and educational element of her job.
“Really what we’re doing at this point is doing everything we can to prevent people from congregating,” Hylinski said. “So, when normally we would do like a sea lion chat every day we no longer do that. We still, obviously, feed the sea lions but we do it at times that are not announced just to prevent people from kind of grouping together. Even with our petting zoo as well, we don’t allow people to feed the animals at this time for the safety of the animals and the safety of our visitors.”
Hylinski says when the pandemic ends, it’s that interaction she is looking forward to most.
Heath says when physical distancing is no longer a problem and the population is vaccinated, the zoo will be bringing its A-game, ready for a big comeback.
“Times are tough right now and some of the programs that we’re able to offer or even our days at the zoo might seem a little bit scaled back,” Heath said. “But don’t judge us on that and write us off for a future visit because once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, I think we’re all going to be really thirsty to ramp up and just make things really exciting and fun and hands on.”