When the City of Brownsville issued a local disaster declaration in anticipation of the spread of COVID-19, the Gladys Porter Zoo was forced to close its gate for the first time in the zoo’s nearly 50-year history.
Almost two weeks later, a slightly smaller zoo staff is working in split shifts to feed animals and take care of the zoo grounds despite the fact that the facilities, which are owned by the city, face a spending freeze for the duration of the closure.
Gladys Porter Zoo’s primary source of income has been admissions fees. In response to the closure, Marketing Director Cynthia Garza Galvan started a GoFundMe campaign to finance the estimated cost to feed the animals through the end of April, at $32,190.
The campaign and its accompanying video featuring zoo staff and their beloved animal friends is accessible on the Gladys Porter Zoo’s Facebook page. Anyone interested in donating can contribute by following the link to the zoo’s GoFundMe page.
Alternatively, anyone wishing to show support can purchase a membership on the zoo’s website, gpz.org. Memberships will go into effect as soon as the zoo re-opens.
So far, the public has stepped up and in both small and large contributions to the campaign. Donors had given nearly $10,000 as of late Tuesday afternoon. Should the zoo remain closed another month, Galvan said staff would potentially extend the campaign based upon the zoo’s needs. “Every little bit helps, so we’re really excited about that,” she said.
“We’ve gotten great feedback from the community and everybody wants to see the zoo continue and make sure that all of the animals are well taken care of even though we’re closed to the public.”
Deputy Director Colette Adams said on Tuesday that staff expected the zoo to close to the public eventually, but was taken off guard when it happened less than an hour following the city’s disaster declaration. “I don’t think there was anything sadder than to see those gates go down. It happened much quicker than we thought.”
“I just want to say that the move by the city to shut everything down in Brownsville was proactive and it was readily accepted by everyone here. It took us a couple of hours for it to sink in that with the closing of the zoo meant the cutting off of our principal source of income, which was visitors,” she specified.
According to Adams, the zoo was already in “phase two” of preparations in anticipation of COVID-19. There are documented cases of primates contracting SARS, of which the novel coronavirus is a variation. Staff had already been separated into different shifts in an effort to ensure all employees and those who care for the animals remained healthy and safe, as well.
“We operate as if they can potentially get it,” said Adams. Faced with the loss of income, she explained that some of the zoo’s customer service staff was furloughed and that hopefully they will be welcomed back sooner rather than later. The zoo’s hourly workers were cut to 32 hours per week and salaried staff voluntarily reduced their incomes by up to 25 percent.
That percentage is donated back to the zoo to pay the bills during the spending freeze, Adams explained. “We had thought ahead and ordered a lot of dry goods for the animals. All of our animal feed — that is our grains — are all stored. We have enough for about six months,” said the deputy director.
“We also have frozen food — meat and fish that would be eaten by our carnivores, for about six months, as well. Those orders were already in. As it turns out, it seems like food is moving very, very well through the Valley. We didn’t really know what to expect, so we proactively ordered ahead,” she said.
Now, the challenge is keeping up with the payments. “We’re set up on a billing system. When we have to pay $25,000 for four months of meat, that’s still coming up.”
Adams said the zoo’s main concerns are its staff and providing fresh feed to the animals. On Tuesday morning, the Brownsville Wellness Coalition donated a truckload of swiss chard and kale from its local farmers to assist.
“The zoo is intrinsically linked to this community. We join everyone else in this uncertainty,” said Adams, expressing gratitude for the outpouring of support. “What is good for the community has always been good for the zoo, and vice versa.”
The zoo will remain closed for the time being, but Adams and other staff remain hopeful and are happily taking care of the animals while practicing as much social distancing as possible. “We’re hopeful, we’re not fearful. Everybody comes to work with a smile on their face and they’re glad that they have a job and can do what they love.”