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South Valley Journal

Want to keep Utah's museums open? Visit or donate

Nov 24, 2020 09:44AM ● By Mariden Williams

The Living Planet Aquarium’s timed ticketing system ensures that the building never gets too crowded for social distancing. (Loveland Living Planet Aquarium)

By Mariden Williams | [email protected]

According to a July survey by the American Alliance of Museums, some 16% of museums across the United States are in danger of closing their doors due to the financial strain of the pandemic. Even those that aren't in immediate danger of closing are still under immense financial pressure. Utah's museums are, sadly, no exception. The Hogle Zoo, the Living Planet Aquarium, the Tracy Aviary, Utah's numerous dinosaur museums—all of them are under a lot of strain, and if they're to stay open, need the public’s support.

While most museums do have endowments and financial reserves to fall back on, they're not big enough to keep them going for very long, and closures earlier in the year have already eaten up almost all of that cushion.

Funding is particularly important, and tight, in facilities with live animals. Places like the Natural History Museum of Utah have the option of closing up completely for a while: the dinosaur bones won't get any deader if no employees come in for weeks at a time. But zoos don't have that option. The animals need to be fed and cared for whether visitors are coming in or not, and that makes funding disappear even faster.

The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, the Tracy Aviary, and the Hogle Zoo all closed for around 50 days from mid-March to mid-May—the high season for most zoos—and all three are still reeling from the impact.

"The Hogle Zoo has taken a major hit, there’s no doubt. We were closed for 50 days during a time of year that is critical to the financial health of the zoo. Spring is when we fill our coffers to help keep us afloat during the fall and winter when attendance declines," said Erica Hansen, the Hogle Zoo's public relations manager.

A lot more was lost than just ticket revenue. Spring is also a key time for many zoos’ fundraising events, most of which had to be canceled or moved online.

“We had to cancel our conservation fundraising garden party, and our education fundraiser, which raises money for camp scholarships and free nature programs,” said Patricia Dark, the Tracy Aviary’s marketing director. “Additionally, we had dozens of weddings booked that had to be canceled. All in all we lost about $500,000.”

Keeping zoos open is important, and not just because they're fun to visit. Zoos are crucial for wildlife conservation, both locally and abroad, and they sponsor a lot of habitat protection and breeding programs for endangered animals. The Living Planet Aquarium farms coral and uses it to bolster struggling and dying coral reefs, which are vital to marine life. The Tracy Aviary hosts and breeds several species that are extinct in the wild, such as the Guam kingfisher. Zoos are the only chance we have at introducing such species back into their native ecosystems. 

“We engage over 100 community science volunteers each year in local and state-wide projects that help conserve birds and their habitats. Our work helps many species—from rosy-finches, owls, and hummingbirds in Utah to macaws, pelicans, and plovers in Central America,” said Dark.

To keep doing the important work, zoos need every bit of money they can get, according to Loveland Living Planet Aquarium CEO Brent Andersen. "It costs over $2 million a year just to care for all of the animals—that includes food, veterinary care, staffing, habitat maintenance, etc. The closure happening right before spring break, our busiest two months of the year, has had a tremendous negative impact on funding," Andersen said. "The reopening has relieved some of that pressure," but not all of it. 

To make things even harder, all three zoos are currently operating at limited capacity—in the aquarium's case, this is by design, as they have been forced to limit ticket sales in order to enforce social distancing requirements in their mostly-indoor buildings.

"We've created a timed ticketing system. This online reservation system allows guests to reserve a specific day and time for their visit. This system ensures that there is always enough room for guests to make physical distancing possible," Andersen said. It's a system that helps keep everyone safe, but it also means they're seeing 40% less attendance than they have in prior years, which makes things hard. "Fewer guests means less revenue, while the cost of caring for the animals and running the facility remains."

At the mostly outdoor Hogle Zoo and Tracy Aviary, tickets are being sold as normal, but visitors still seem to be hesitant to return in the numbers they used to. According to Dark, the Tracy Aviary is only seeing 40% of its usual amount of visitors. The story at the Hogle Zoo is similar, even though staff are doing everything they can to make sure that visiting the zoo is as safe as possible.

"We were among the first three zoos in the country to reopen and our team worked tirelessly to make that happen," Hansen said of Hogle Zoo. "We have hours for high-risk and elderly on Monday mornings, 8 to 10 a.m. Masks are required indoors and strongly encouraged outside, we have numerous hand sanitizer stations throughout zoo grounds, distance markers and lots of reminders for guests to take caution. We’ve had a few vocal parties on the great mask debate of 2020, but otherwise, most guests seem to be enjoying their time and are happy to have a safe place to stretch their legs."

With this decrease in visitor revenue, there's a fair amount of worry as to what will happen should a winter resurgence of the virus trigger a second wave of closures. Will the museums be able to survive it?

"Boy, we sure hope so," Hansen said. "That could be tough for us, and we’re currently counting on revenue and attendance during our popular BooLights and ZooLights events to help us out." At BooLights and ZooLights, which occur around Halloween and Christmas respectively, the Hogle Zoo grounds are bedecked in hundreds of colorful holiday-themed lights. Both events are good family fun, and have been well attended in the past. Unfortunately, they also take place in fall and winter, which is when epidemiologists say a resurgence of the virus is likely.

Government aid is also a possibility. "Depending on the length of any closure, we would be seeking federal and local funding like those that were allocated through Congress in April," Andersen said of the aquarium. This would also be an option for Utah's other zoos.

Representatives from all the state's museums and zoos said the public can help them to stay open. People can make a difference, through visiting them and simply donating.

"We need visitors now more than ever. Or we at least need your support. There are many ways to donate," Hansen said.

Many museums, including the Hogle Zoo, are currently holding silent auctions, with prize packages donated by community businesses. Some even open after regular hours on fundraiser nights: the aviary is holding $30 socially-distanced outdoor movie nights throughout September, which gives people an opportunity to explore when the sun is less intense and nocturnal birds are active. Buying annual memberships to your favorite museums functions as a donation as well as a pass to visit them often. And, of course, there's always the tried-and-true simple cash donation, which can be made through most any museum's main website.

Donations really do make a difference for museums. It sure made a difference for the Natural History Museum of Utah, whose curators were, earlier this summer, worried whether it could survive the year. But after their Fund the Future drive in June yielded nearly triple their original goal, their future is secured. With the public’s help, that same security can be given to other favorite museums.