Big Challenges Facing Brevard Zoo

The Brevard Zoo, one of the Space Coast’s most beloved “feel good” destinations, is facing critical decisions in coming months as it tries to navigate the grim reality of losing up to a third of its operating budget this year, estimated at more than

$4 million dollars

The effects of the pandemic lockdown have devastated the non-profit organization, which is facing a 50% reduction in attendance while costs remain static for overhead, employee pay, and feeding, housing and caring for the menagerie of animals that share space in the open concept zoo.

At one point this past spring, during the two months of the complete shutdown, the zoo had to tap deep-pocket benefactors to be able to feed the animals and meet payroll. Part-time staff was let go when the zoo shut down in March and full-time staff also had to adapt: hourly workers were cut down to 32 hours a week and salaried staff took a 15% pay cut. A few positions have been permanently eliminated.

New RULES for Visiting the Zoo

Since March, attendance has plummeted to less than half of what it had been last year. For two months, there were no visitors at all during peak season for the Zoo. When it reopened in May, the Zoo started a “timed entry” policy to limit crowd size and encourage social distancing. Now, online reservation must be scheduled ahead of time to gain entry to the 75-acre expanse.

Andrea Hill, the zoo’s Communications Director, says in normal times 45% of the zoo visitors come from outside Brevard County, many of them international tourists. The in- ternational number has dropped to near zero.

Photography by Jason Hook

In normal times, 90% of the zoo’s funds are realized through admission-related income.

According to reports, the annual economic impact of the Zoo exceeds $59.5 million.

Jackie Barker, president of the board that oversees the zoo, says the future “is very difficult to forecast. We have adjusted our budget for the rest of the year based on meeting goals of 50% attendance, but nobody knows what the future looks like.”

Instead of putting together a full 2021 budget, the board is only planning through the first quarter of next year to see how things go. She is thankful for the community response to fundraising campaigns, “people have been very generous”. She also had high praise for the zoo staff, “they are so passionate”.

HOMETOWN Zoo, National Reputation

The Brevard Zoo is small compared to other zoos but has a national reputation for excellence. USA Today recently ranked it #5 in the country, higher than the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. Additionally, the Zoo has continually been recognized as a leading institution in top ten zoo lists and awards from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Founders of the zoo recall bringing their own hammers and tool kits to lend a hand building the original zoo 26 years ago.  In fact, the community effort recruited more than 16,000 volunteers and raised $3.5 million and to construct the largest community-built zoo in the world.

Photography by Jason Hook
Photography by Jason Hook

Seeking Community SUPPORT

In order to keep operating, the zoo is in the midst of an ambitious million-dollar fund raising campaign. As of this writing, Winsten says it has already raised $600,000 with the average donation coming in at about $200. To be sure, the Zoo is leaning on wealthy contributors. But there also have been touching stories of small individual giving. The youngster who brought in a piggy bank. The college student who donated his entire savings, $512, because of the learning experiences he had at the zoo school.

Melanie Tisdale, her husband Cliff and two daughters have been Zoo members for over 10 years.

“We give what we can with a growing family, $20 here, $20 there,” she said. They have an annual membership and went to the Zoo monthly before COVID. “People should give at whatever level they’re capable of. It’s such a special place.”

Photography by Jason Hook

Migration, Not EXTINCTION

Renowned for its research and conservation efforts, a few popular programs developed at the Zoo are facing – at the very least – change. Some may even be migrated to Zoo partners.

The long-term Sea Turtle Rehabilitation program may be handed off to conservation partners, said Winsten.

There has been one temporary casualty of the zoo economy. The highly anticipated Brevard Aquarium project is on hold. In the most recent rounds of funding at the state level, Gov. DeSantis effectively sucked the air out of this project when he vetoed a $500,000 appropriation for the aquarium.

Photography by Jason Hook

The design stage will continue, but fundraising won’t resume until the zoo is back on its feet.

“We need a healthy zoo in order to have an aquarium,” said Winsten. “This is a speed bump, not a stop sign.”

Restore Our Shores, which builds oyster reefs and plants mangroves along the Indian River Lagoon to help mitigate shoreline erosion and improve water quality has been able to continue because its paid for by state grants and money from the lagoon sales tax trust fund.

Something else has changed. According to Winsten, the zoo is “migrating to virtual platforms” not just for fundraising, but as a way of carrying out the zoo’s educational objectives. The traditional zoo camps have been replaced with online learning. Camps that used to run nine weeks in person, now run four weeks online. It seems to be working. “While mom and dad are working from home, the kids are on zoo camp.” Annual fundraising events like Safari Under the Stars, Boo at the Zoo, and Jazzoo are likely going to be held online this year.

Crowd FUNDING in Crowdless Times

Facebook has become a fundraising powerhouse for the Zoo. This spring one Facebook campaign had a goal of $1,000. It actually raised $10,000. According to Winsten, “people really want to help”.

Barbara Wall, an Indian Harbour Beach realtor and longtime zoo advocate, has started a weekly “adopt an animal” Facebook cam- paign. Each week features a different animal. Response has been greater than she expected. Some friends are giving large amounts, many Facebook followers are giving what they can.

Andrea Hill says the zoo has an emotional appeal in the community. “We’re all hurting, but people still give.”

See the Up Close feature on Keith Winsten in the Space Coast Business section of this magazine, pp 32.

Keith Winsten, Executive Director, Brevard Zoo Photography by Jason Hook

PLAN YOUR VISIT

ZOO HOURS
9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (members)
9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. (non-members)

TIMED ENTRY TICKET PRICES
Adults: $24.70 Children (ages 3 to 11): $14.70 Seniors: $22.70 Payment is credit/debit card only. No cash. Masks are required for everyone over 7 years old.


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