'A community treasure': Oakland Zoo fighting for survival amid COVID-19 closure, will run out of reserves soon

The Oakland Zoo is "truly a special asset for our community," the mayor said Wednesday.
OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- It's a beloved institution that's served generations of Bay Area residents, but now thanks to the coronavirus shutdown, the Oakland Zoo may be on its last legs.

While zoos and animal parks in other parts of the state have been allowed to reopen with a limited number of visitors, the Oakland Zoo remains closed.

With news that the Oakland Zoo is losing $2 million per month amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Libby Schaaf is encouraging California and Alameda County officials to take the appropriate steps to allow the zoo to reopen.

The Oakland Zoo is "truly a special asset for our community," the mayor said in an interview Wednesday on ABC7's Midday Live.

The zoo was forced to close in March when the pandemic began and is now facing permanent closure unless it's allowed to reopen.

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In the interview with Mayor Schaaf, she encouraged Alameda County to apply for a variance to allow the Oakland Zoo to reopen safely.

"That is what I've been told by the state needs to be done. And let us all agree, the zoo is an incredible asset, and while we wait for the next step to approve their safe opening, those of who can afford it should send a little contribution to the zoo," the mayor said. "We have got to care for those animals, many of whom were rescued."

At the zoo, it seems even Osh knows something's amiss, or missing, his human visitors, normally as many as 7,000 per day.

That is except for the loyal staff, who continue to feed the zebras and chimpanzees and all the others, amid a coronavirus closure now going on four months.

It's a shutdown that may never end, just three years after a $72 million dollar expansion, that included a new gondola and restaurant.

Dr. Joel Parrott says the fate of the animals and the beloved facility is now in the hands of county and state officials.

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"By April, we were already in a situation where we needed help, said Dr. Joel Parrott, president and CEO of the Oakland Zoo. "By far, we are supported by the operations, the admission price, the concessions, the rides area. We cannot make up for this by philanthropy alone."

Under current coronavirus restrictions, the zoo can't reopen to the public, unless it's reclassified, or granted an exception or variance by the state.

"We have sent a letter to the state asking them to reclassify the zoo as an outdoor museum, which would allow it to open now," said Neetu Balram, public information manager for the Alameda County Department of Public Health. "If the state doesn't agree, the zoo has to wait until we have our variance attestation in place. We had planned to apply for attestation last week, but pulled it due to rapidly increasing cases and hospitalizations."

Balram said the county will pursue the variance once "disease conditions allow."

In the meantime, the zoo has all its new COVID-19 signage, sanitation protocols and plans in place for a limited reopening, just 2,500 visitors per day, but it still needs permission.

Its $3.2 million reserve is rapidly running out.

"In the meantime, it's costing about one million dollars per month and that's why we're on this trajectory." said Parrott. "We are going to run out of money."

CORONAVIRUS IMPACT: Oakland Zoo tries to stay afloat while caring for, feeding animals with zero ticket revenue

The Oakland Zoo did receive help from the federal government under the Paycheck Protections Program (PPP), but that ended on July 1.

And if the non-profit that manages the zoo does run out of money, the responsibility would fall on the zoo's owner, the City of Oakland.

"I am urging officials at either the state or county level to allow the zoo to open safely. It is just such a community treasure," said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Anyone wishing to buy a membership or make a monetary donation to the Animal Care Fund can go to www.oaklandzoo.org.

WATCH: Oakland mayor discusses future of zoo amid COVID-19
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Mayor Libby Schaaf said Alameda County should apply for a variance to allow the Oakland Zoo to reopen safely.


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