“It’s torture”: Closed Ecomuseum Zoo cares for animals without revenue under COVID-19 shutdown

The Ecomuseum Zoo in Quebec’s Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, like all non-essential services, has been closed since March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But just because visitors aren’t allowed, that doesn’t mean the zoo can shut down.

There’s still a lot to do, with around 400 animals that require care.

“We don’t skimp on anything that relates to the well being of the animals,” said executive director David Rodrigue, adding the situation comes with its own unique set of challenges.

One of those challenges is staffing.

“We’re a non-profit organization and we care for live animals,” Rodrigue said. “You need a lot of people proportionately to run the operations.”

Staffing accounts for around 75 per cent of the zoo’s expenditures and with little to no revenue coming in — save for a few donations and educational contracts that schools were asked to honour by the government — the ecomuseum has had to temporarily lay off around 60 per cent of its employees.

Currently, only nine employees are keeping essential services going at the park. That includes feeding the animals, cleaning and maintaining their habitats.

“Regarding animal care, we do as much as we did before,” said animal care director Patricia Presseau. They spend less time maintaining the areas and features meant for humans. “We’re doing less aesthetics for visitors.”

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But even with reduced staff, running a zoo is a costly endeavour.

“It’s torture, so to speak,” Rodrigue said, of the financial situation. “Right now,  we are at $100,000 per month that is going out against zero dollars in revenue.”

The zoo relies on admissions, gift shop sales, educational activities, consulting fees based on its conservation expertise, donations and occasional grants to get by.

Some relief, however, is on the way via the federal government’s Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program.

While the animals are being well-taken care of, the absence of visitors isn’t just having an impact on the bottom line, some of the animals are feeling it too.

“Some animals are more relaxed,” said Presseau. “Some animals are looking for visitors. The wolves, they are used to seeing humans and they are looking for that interaction that we have with the visitors.”

Rodrigue for his part is confident the Ecomuseum will weather the storm.

“We’re this organization that has been there for 33 years now and we have a high impact in the community,” he said.

“We’re here for the animals and we’re here to make sure that people re-connect with animals. We have no intention of stopping doing that. So I’m sure we’ll find every possible way to get through that.”

–With file from Global’s Brayden Jagger Haines

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