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‘We may fail to win this war’ – Boss’ stark warning on future of Colchester Zoo

PUBLISHED: 05:30 09 June 2020

The cheetah Sia and her cub at Colchester Zoo, which is fighting for its future during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: PHIL JUDD

The cheetah Sia and her cub at Colchester Zoo, which is fighting for its future during the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: PHIL JUDD

Picture:PHIL JUDD

The director of Colchester Zoo is calling for more clarity from the government on when it will be able to reopen – admitting the loss of income has “run into millions” and he “fears for its future”.

The elephants are one of the main attractions for visitors at Colchester Zoo, in Essex, which is fearful of its future as a result of the pandemic. Picture: COLCHESTER ZOOThe elephants are one of the main attractions for visitors at Colchester Zoo, in Essex, which is fearful of its future as a result of the pandemic. Picture: COLCHESTER ZOO

The coronavirus pandemic has been the most devastating challenge Dr Dominique Tropeano has faced since becoming director of the zoo in 1983 – almost four decades ago.

The zoo, which relies heavily on income generated by its thousands of visitors, has been closed for more than two months as a result of the virus which has killed more than 40,000 people in the UK.

What will the future bring?

Dr Tropeano fears that even when the zoo is given the go ahead to reopen the “war will carry on”.

Meerkats at Colchester Zoo in Essex. Picture: NEIL YOUNGMeerkats at Colchester Zoo in Essex. Picture: NEIL YOUNG

“I fear for the future, our animals, our employees and I fear we may well fail to win this war,” warned Dr Tropeano.

“What we have worked hard for over many years appears to have disappeared in the last three months.

“We had stability, even if we had ups and downs, we had plans to improve and expand, we had hope and determination to achieve our goals. But now I am concerned about the zoo and what the future will bring.”

Dr Tropeano and his team have transformed the tourist attraction into one of the best zoos in the country, winning a number of awards in recent years for being classed as the ‘best day out’.

The Amur leopard cub at Colchester Zoo, which is struggling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: TOM SMITHThe Amur leopard cub at Colchester Zoo, which is struggling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: TOM SMITH

‘It is a very difficult war to win’

But Dr Tropeano says the virus has had a devastating impact on the zoo financially, and they will only know the real loss of income next year, if they survive or fail.

He said: “We are now in the middle of a battle but when we reopen the war will carry on and it is a very difficult war to win. 

“We expect to only achieve 30 to 50% of our normal attendance, which would barely allow us to survive, providing that massive cuts to our costs are made. 

Cheetah cubs at Colchester Zoo, where bosses are concerned for the future following the impact of coronavirus. Picture: PHIL JUDDCheetah cubs at Colchester Zoo, where bosses are concerned for the future following the impact of coronavirus. Picture: PHIL JUDD

“We expect retail and catering, a necessary income to help our survival, to reduce by at least 70% on our 2019 figures.

“Social distancing will ensure numbers are down but cost of maintaining all these regulations will need to increase to ensure we comply.”

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Plans to reopen

The Kamala Red Panda at Colchester Zoo. Picture: COLCHESTER ZOOThe Kamala Red Panda at Colchester Zoo. Picture: COLCHESTER ZOO

The zoo says it is hopeful of a July reopening date, but feels there is a clear lack of clarity and direction from the authorities.

“It is time for the government to risk assess zoos so the decision of how and when we can reopen can be resolved,” urged Dr Tropeano.

“How can we accept having people using packed trains and underground transport, people squashed on a beach or beauty spot, and people at demonstrations, but at the same time not allow zoos to be open?”

“Zoos have been treated like all industrial sites or shops have been treated, this is shameful because we are very different. We need help with business rates and a range of other costs until we are able to get back on our feet.”

Once the zoo is allowed to reopen, a number of social distancing measures will be in place to avoid the virus spreading.

More: Advance booking and plans for a mobile app – how Colchester Zoo will reopen after lockdown

Visitor numbers expected to fall

But, Dr Tropeano reveals that these measures will continue to have a huge impact on the zoo and its level of income until restrictions are eased.

The zoo will only be allowed to admit around 2,000 visitors per day, where they normally would expect 5,000 or 6,000 at peak times.

Dr Tropeano added: “If you run a production line you can furlough your staff, you can turn the heating off, switch the electric off, lock the doors and leave. You can’t do this with a zoo. “You need the majority of your keepers to feed, clean and care for the animals, you need your maintenance team to ensure there is no failure, while your electrical consumption, heating and water remains the same, so all the costs stay as they were but without any income.”

Many, if not most zoos, are “now on their death bed and it is very likely casualties will happen”, warns Dr Tropeano. 

“Helping zoos now will ensure they survive and will also ensure we can invest in the future and protect jobs for all our employees. The choice is very clear.”

Last week, bosses of Africa Alive! in Suffolk and Banham Zoo in Norfolk, said the venues are “finished” if the government delays the reopening until August.

The two managing directors, like Dr Tropeano, are calling on the government to allow them to reopen.

The Zoological Society of East Anglia – which runs both zoos – is set to meet DEFRA officials with the support of local MPS ahead of a debate in parliament on June 11.

More: £20 will feed a spider monkey for a day - how you can help save Colchester Zoo’s animals


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