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'We will not let that happen': Taoiseach says government will intervene to ensure Dublin Zoo remains open

Dublin Zoo launched the ‘Save Dublin Zoo’ fundraising campaign today.

Zookeeker Brendan Walsh.
Zookeeker Brendan Walsh.
Image: Dublin Zoo

Updated Nov 18th 2020, 12:53 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said the government will be intervening to ensure the Dublin Zoo stays open. 

The attraction’s director warned today that there is a real risk that Dublin Zoo may close for good due to the impact of Covid-19 restrictions,

Dr Christoph Schwitzer said he expects the zoo’s emergency cash reserves to last until next spring, “and not beyond right now”. 

The likely continuation of restrictions on visitor numbers into next year may see the zoo close its doors as it cannot afford to stay open under current operating conditions. 

In the Dáil today, Sinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald said the closure of the zoo would be devastating the to employment, the local economy and tourism.

The Taoiseach said the government does not want Dublin Zoo to close its doors, and will do everything it can to ensure it does not close.

Micheál Martin said it has been some time since capital funding was given to Dublin Zoo, indicating that additional funding would be forthcoming to the attraction.

He said the government has to intervene here to ensure the zoo is here for “generations to come and I intend to act on that”.

Schwitzer told Morning Ireland today that animal care alone costs €500,000 each month, with the zoo estimating losses of €8.2m in potential revenue so far this year.  

He said cost-saving measures have been taken but there are limitations to what they can do.

“You can’t furlough an elephant, you can’t switch off a zoo at night when you go home. Our animals need and deserve 24/7 care and we provide the highest standards of animal care and welfare possible,” he said.  

“Animal care alone costs us half a million a month, and these are very high fixed costs, and with no income from visitation, of course, we have difficulty meeting them.”

The zoo does not receive statutory funding from government but Schwitzer says he is currently engaged in “constructive” talks with local TDs who are all very supportive across parties but in the meantime, “I can’t stand idle as the director of Dublin Zoo, I have to do something”.

“We have relied on our emergency cash reserves to remain open when allowed, but even then, visitor number restrictions due to social distancing have made it near impossible to generate enough revenue to just break even. Without financial support, we are facing an uncertain future and may have to close,” Schwitzer said. 

“At this time of year, we are usually in the middle of Wild Lights and making preparations for the busy Christmas period, but instead we find ourselves fighting for our future and calling on the people of Ireland to answer our call and donate if possible.”

Minister of State for for Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan tweeted that he is hopeful that his department will be able to offer short term financial support to help tide over Dublin Zoo and Fota Island, stating that he raised the matter with the Taoiseach and the Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath.

“The outflow of public goodwill in terms of donations is testament to the high regard that these places have in our public consciousness. The loss of Dublin or Fota is unthinkable,” he said.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie this morning, zookeeper Brendan Walsh said that while some staff in retail and administration were let go, the zoo “never compromised on the care of the animals”, despite the financial hardship over the last number of months.

“We can’t reduce the money we spend on the animals. There hasn’t been a single moment we’ve economised there and we can’t, our costs can’t change,” he said. “We’re lucky to be able to come to work and look after them but we need people’s help now.”

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The zoo did manage to reopen for June, July and August but Walsh said this was at half capacity and there were costs associated with operating during a pandemic, such as PPE, additional administration, the implementation of one-way routes with signage and hand sanitiser. 

“The income was massively reduced compared to that time last year,” he said.

Walsh said the closure of the zoo is a real possibility if the financial situation does not dramatically change.

“It came through two world wars and numerous recessions and it’s always been difficult. The zoo is not what it was years ago, it’s very different, very modern and now we’re not just a visitor attraction we’re a conservation body.”

He said he thinks some of the animals are missing their human visitors.

“The orangutans and other primates, I think they enjoy the interactions with visitors. In lockdown they moved from their regular location on the island to get closer to the staff,” he said.

“The wolves have also been coming closer to the fence, which was a big surprise because wolves are generally very shy. When visitors came back in after the lockdown they were coming closer than anticipated.”

In a bid to counter the financial losses, Dublin Zoo launched the ‘Save Dublin Zoo’ fundraising campaign today, appealing to the Irish public for help. 

More information on fundraising can be found here.

With reporting by Christina Finn

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