The Minnesota Zoo is offering a socially distanced way to see some of its animals next week in an effort to raise funds as it faces financial struggles forced on it by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We really do need to raise critical funds to help us care for animals and sustain long-term,” said Zach Nugent, the zoo’s spokesman.
The Apple Valley zoo plans to offer “Beastly Boulevard” starting Wednesday through July 5, a 20- to 30-minute drive down its Northern Trail. Visitors will be able to page through a digital educational booklet and listen to a playlist of songs and other features.
The drive-through event is the Minnesota Zoo’s first step toward safely reopening to the public amid the coronavirus, Nugent said.
The zoo’s money woes — an estimated $15 million in revenue loss is projected for the biennium — have been building since March 14, when COVID-19 forced it to close. Since then, 48 employees have been laid off.
Earlier this month, the popular Music in the Zoo summer concert series was canceled for the first time since it began in 1993, because of state distancing guidelines designed to inhibit transmission of the virus.
As a state agency, the zoo typically gets one-third of its operating budget from the state and the other two-thirds from earned revenue, such as admission fees and donations.
The dire financial situation drew a warning Tuesday from Gov. Tim Walz, who said the zoo may have to move its animals or close permanently without $6 million in aid that he’s included in the bonding bill. The appropriation would cover about 40% of the zoo’s projected revenue loss for the biennium because of COVID-19, zoo officials said.
Some legislators are seeking ways to get the zoo the money it needs. The House recently attached a proposal for the zoo funding, along with other budget priorities, to a bill dispersing federal CARES Act money, said Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount.
“When the zoo director tells me he’s looking for companies that can take his animals, he’s in trouble,” Huot said. “It’s a really hard position we’re in.”
Huot added that even if the zoo could open today, it wouldn’t make up for revenue that’s been lost.
“I do not want to be the legislator that lost the zoo,” Huot said. “I love the zoo.”
In addition to employee layoffs, the zoo has reduced costs in other areas, including canceling or delaying projects and freezing its spending.
Nugent said the drive-through event has been in the works for a while. It was modeled after similar programs elsewhere, including zoos in Phoenix and El Paso, Texas.
“One of the benefits of the Minnesota Zoo is just the land that we have,” Nugent said. “We do have these wide trails that can accommodate cars.”
Zoo officials had to create new signage for the drive and make sure existing signs didn’t block views, he said. Brush was cleared in some areas to ensure that the animals could be seen from the road.
“We made sure that there were some vantage points,” Nugent said.
The Beastly Boulevard promises views of Asian wild horses, camels and bison before passing the Wells Fargo Family Farm, which features llamas, horses, cows and goats.
Zoo officials are still planning on a phased reopening when health guidelines indicate different levels of contact are safe, he said.
Beastly Boulevard is a contactless event and tickets are available online, at $25 per car for members and $50 for nonmembers. Sales begin Friday at mnzoo.org/beastlyboulevard.