It’s a lot of hay. The animals at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo eat 550 tons of hay annually. It’s no surprise, considering that the zoo’s five African elephants alone like to chow down on mountains of Timothy hay, an abundant perennial variety. Adult males weigh up to 12,000 pounds and can grow to 11.5 feet tall. Females weigh between 6,000 and 10,000 pounds and can grow to 9 feet tall. Even calves weigh 200 pounds at birth, although they nurse for two years.
Then there are the five Eastern black rhinoceroses, who are enjoying their new $2.5 million Daniel Maltz Rhino Reserve, which opened this spring. The length of a rhino’s head and body can reach 10 to 12 feet, and each animal weighs between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds. Zoo rhinos are fed alfalfa hay, along with other herbivore goodies.
Those are just two of the hungry species at the zoo. Gorillas aren’t shy at the table, either. The zoo’s total grocery bill, which includes hay and other grasses, fruits, vegetables and all the rest of the ingredients for all the animals’ specialized diets, is huge. And the zoo’s nonprofit partner, the Cleveland Zoological Society, is raising money to help offset the cost to feed these species and more this summer.
Like other zoos across the country, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo closed in mid-March because of COVID-19. Following the closure, the zoo lost $1.5 million in revenue (as of the end of May). Even though the zoo reopened June 17, the financial damage is significant.
“The zoo can’t just close its doors and turn off the lights to save costs like some other institutions might be able to. Animal care must continue,” says Sarah Crupi, executive director, Cleveland Zoological Society, the zoo’s nonprofit and advocate partner. “The zoo’s animal care and veterinary teams were essential employees throughout the closure, working every day to care for the animals even when guests couldn’t visit. The zoo’s facilities teams, too, have been on grounds to maintain habitats and plant life.”
But it takes money to sustain these operations during closure. Even though Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is partially supported by Cuyahoga County taxpayers through property tax, grants and local government sources, Cleveland Zoo Society’s donations are needed more than ever.
With the help of its 40,000 member houses and 250,000 individual members (2018 stats), Cleveland Zoo Society provides unrestricted operating support to the zoo through membership sales. With the help from hundreds of longtime, loyal donors, the Zoo Society also raises money for animal care (food, veterinary supplies and habitat supplies), education and international conservation (helping save giraffes in the wild, for example). Since 1998, Cleveland Zoo Society also has provided $35 million in funding for the zoo’s capital improvement projects. Those include the new rhino habitat, as well as Asian Highlands and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Welcome Pavilion, both of which opened in 2018.
“We are trying to raise about $800,000 for animal care in 2020, which is four times what we would raise in a more normal financial year,” says Crupi, noting that many donors have reached out to see how they can help the zoo during this summer of COVID-19 impact. “I am hopeful we will get there by the end of the year. It doesn’t get much more basic than food and habitat.”
The zoo’s closure greatly impacted the Zoo Society’s 2020 budget, and the results will most likely continue into 2021. Many programs were cancelled, events were postponed and operational and staffing expenses were cut.
“Memberships are down because people weren’t going to the zoo. The membership program is still the greatest piece of our annual revenue. Our members are used to getting certain perks for their donations, but we can’t do that when the zoo is closed. We’ve had to change donor engagement, and we have extended memberships to cover the length of the closure,” notes Crupi.
The Metroparks worked hard to keep the community engaged. Its Cruise the Zoo event, for example, was created to allow visitors in their vehicles to tour parts of the zoo this past May and June. The limited fundraising event was intended to help offset a portion of the $1.5 million decrease in annual revenue the zoo was facing just in May compared to last year. It was also a way for the zoo to stay connected to guests.
“I took my kids to Cruise the Zoo, and I don’t know if it was true or just me, but the animals seemed to be checking out people a little more than usual. The animals still have their daily routines, and that hasn’t changed all that much. People ask us all the time if the animals miss the visitors,” says Crupi, who oversees a staff of 20.
“We have a fundraising staff of four, and since March they have made over 700 calls and sent 500 emails (as of the beginning of June) thanking people for their support or asking for donations,” says Crupi. “Making a donation to the Zoo Society supports all aspects of the zoo, including caring for the animals. We are hoping everyone who cares about the zoo, its staff and the animals will consider making a donation or renewing their membership this year.”
Crupi calls many of the Zoo Society’s donors “amazing friends who have given very generously because they love the zoo, the animals and the zookeepers.
“One of the best ways people can help is to become a member or renew a membership,” adds Crupi. “My staff and I feel an incredible amount of responsibility to the animals and the staff at the zoo. We are focusing every effort on making sure we can support their daily and long-term needs.”