The Minnesota Zoo has received $6 million in state COVID-19 relief funding that will help keep the state-operated attraction afloat while it remains closed by the pandemic.

The money will fund basic operations at the Apple Valley zoo, which without its usual gate receipts is looking for ways to cut costs.

"It's one of those institutions that just makes life in Minnesota special," said Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley. The funding, he said, "was desperately needed."

Zoo spokesman Zach Nugent said the funding will replace about 40% of an estimated loss of $15 million over the biennium. It will allow the zoo to care for animals, retain staffers and continue a "phased approach to welcoming guests back to the zoo," he said.

"This does not make the zoo financially whole, but this support is vitally important to sustaining the zoo and allowing us to forge a path forward," Nugent said.

State Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans on Tuesday requested the funding be drawn from the COVID-19 Minnesota fund, created by the Legislature to maintain government operations under Gov. Tim Walz's peacetime emergency order. After a legislative commission approved the request, Frans authorized the funding.

The zoo is "extremely grateful" for the support of Walz and legislators, Nugent said.

The zoo, which is a state agency, closed in mid-March in response to the pandemic. About one-third of its funding comes from the state while the balance comes from earned revenue such as gate receipts. So it has been strapped for cash ever since it shut down.

Zoos across the nation and world are facing similar financial problems as they remain closed but still must cover fixed costs like building maintenance, salaries and animals' food. One German zoo made lists of which animals it would sacrifice first to feed to other animals.

In May, the Minnesota Zoo laid off about 50 employees and postponed the hiring of dozens of seasonal workers in an effort to reduce spending. Several large projects are on hold.

Zoo officials are trying innovative ways to allow the public to view animals and raise money. In late June they debuted the Beastly Boulevard, a drive along the Northern Trail that will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through July 12.

Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount, said the dollars were "hard fought" in order to keep the zoo viable.

"Our Minnesota Zoo is not only a treasured community amenity, but a regional asset that deserves to be protected for all," he said.