NORFOLK, Va. - An empty parking lot in April is not the usual scene at the Virginia Zoo.
“We have 600 parking spots and not a car in the lot. It’s pretty striking,” said the zoo’s executive director, Greg Bockheim.
It’s also disappointing for guests who were planning to visit. Michael Hymel just moved to Norfolk.
“That was the only thing I actually knew was over here. That’s what everyone was telling me back at school,” he adds.
Just like most places, the zoo had to put a lock on its gates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving more than 700 animals like lions, giraffes and turtles alone with their caretakers.
“The animals are doing well. We have our essential staff of zoo keepers and vet team that takes care of all of them,” Bockheim adds.
The zoo was forced to furlough about 30 of their employees.
“The zoo is a hybrid organization. About half of our budget is covered by the City of Norfolk - like operational costs, like zoo keepers and medicine,” he adds.
The rest of the budget is raised by a non-profit, the Virginia Zoological Society, through ticket and membership sales. Bockheim says they are now trying to raise money for their emergency operating fund.
“They generate their income by having those big events by providing capital campaigns and drives to raise funds for exhibits.”
The zoo is currently in their peak period: Spring Break, where they usually welcome 20,000 people into the zoo a week, and during the summer months, where they see an average about 10,000 people through their gates.
Bockheim says, “I would say in our busiest quarter of the season - which would be April, May and June - we probably lose $500,000 - $700,000.”
He says he’s optimistic that the zoo may open their gates back up before the end of the summer.
Guests like Hymel say they’re looking forward to petting and feeding some of their favorite wildlife.
“Hopefully that [the emergency fund] can help them out a lot because a lot of kids don’t get to travel a lot. I experienced that, so being able to see the animals from the different parts of the world and where they come from - it's cool to see.”
To donate to the Virginia Zoo's emergency fund, click here.