This week I was listening to the news and heard that only a single zoo has managed to successfully claim any funding from the government’s £100m zoo emergency fund. It turns out that you only get the money when you can prove you are 12 weeks from bankruptcy. Most zoos will know if they are heading for bankruptcy well in advance of 12 weeks and will need to be rehoming animals before they get close to being able to claim any money. This is what happened in the case of the Living Coasts Zoo owned by Wild Planet Trust.
Living Coasts first shut its doors on 23rd of March along with every other zoo and visitor attraction as part of the first UK lockdown. When zoos were allowed to reopen again on the 15th June, Living Coasts stayed shut. On the 16th June, the very next day, Wild Planet Trust announced the permanent closure of Living Coasts citing a high cost base, need to make efficiencies and inability to afford substantial maintenance.
Wild Planet Trust also runs Newquay Zoo and Paignton Zoo. When a single group enterprise runs a number of zoos this usually gives a bit more security to each individual member. You can imagine that if Newquay had a bad year then Paignton could foot the bill, or maybe if Living Coasts had bumper sales they could pay for refurbishment at Paignton. In the business world, having the diversification of three zoos, and this extra security, means that you can usually run with lower savings in reserve than if each of the three zoos was its own separate entity. This obviously comes-a-cropper when all three zoos shut down. Now you have fewer savings to split between them and you are faced with having to make a really tough choice.
Digging into the financial records of Wild Planet Trust allows you to see a bit more of the picture, and maybe understand why it was Living Coasts that fell down. The legal structure of Wild Planet Trusts is that Newquay and Paignton both count as one company and Living Coasts is a separate standalone charity. This would have made it much simpler (and cheaper) to close Living Coasts than to legally restructure Newquay and Paignton to separate them out. While there aren’t published reports for 2019, the figures from 2018 and 2017 show a growing loss rather than any profit being made.
The records do show that each zoo had £1m of assets in reserve to cover them over difficult period but looking into the expenditure figures, this covers about a year of operation. Most of any income arises in the summer and this wasn’t going to be a great summer for visitor numbers so that £1m would need to stretch quite a long way. Clearly the trustees decided the gap was just going to be too large and they would rather preserve Newquay and Paignton than let all three die a slow death.
I never managed to visit Living Coasts and I haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing Paignton or Newquay so I can’t really comment on whether this was a good decision. Living coasts was home to the UK’s first mangrove exhibit which would have been impressive to see. It also had some great exhibits on UK shoreline animals and birds and I’m a sucker for anything showing difficult to see British fauna. On the other hand, I hear it did need a bit of work doing to it and this might free up some capital to give Newquay and Paignton some renovation.
So what happens when a zoo shuts down?
The most important job is finding homes for the animals. One of the benefits of being part of a group of close-by zoos is that you have a temporary place to put your animals while you hunt for homes which greatly reduces the worries about having to euthanise animals. Then the fact that you are the first zoo to close means that you are probably more likely to be able to offload than if you were the 15th. Thankfully, Wild Planet Trusts have confirmed all animals have now found permanent homes.
The next consideration is the staff. Since closing Living Coasts, Wild Planet Trust have also announced 44 jobs at risk in Newquay and Paignton. With lower visitor numbers there will be less need for staff to give talks, or to have an extra till open in the café. This means, very sadly, that the staff from Living Coasts are not likely to be rehomed in other parts of the group. I believe staff can apply for redundancy pay packages but I’m sure this is scant compensation for losing your job.
Once you’ve thought through the implications for the animals and the staff, you then have the site left over. One has to hope that it will be repurposed for something that brings jobs back to the area but for now it will just be empty except for the capture and transportation of the final few animals. Its always sad when any business has to shut down but it seems doubly so when it is a zoo which would have seen thousands of people cross its threshold every year. The thought of the shell of a zoo standing empty sends shivers down my spine. I just hope that this will be the only one. To that end I say go out and visit your local zoo, they need your support now more than ever!