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Travel & Leisure

Closed zoos in Japan scramble to keep animals fed and healthy

Crowdfunding and presold tickets help operators stay afloat

A caretaker feeds a giraffe at the Non Hoi Park zoo in Toyohashi, Japan. (Photo by Koji Uema)

NAGOYA -- Zoos across Japan shut down over the pandemic have taken steps to protect their charges from the coronavirus.

At Nagoya's Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens, caretakers now work in rotating shifts to minimize risk, and infection control measures are thorough.

"We intend to ensure the best possible conditions for welcoming back the children who are waiting for us to reopen," a spokesperson said.

Big cats at New York's Bronx Zoo tested positive for the virus last month, with the source reportedly a staffer.

Higashiyama Zoo, known for showcasing Shabani the handsome gorilla, can ill afford to see its top draws go out of commission. It and other zoos are hurting financially under the nationwide emergency declaration.

The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums says its 91 zoos and 52 aquariums were closed as of April 27. But costs continue to mount.

"Even if [the zoos] aren't able to operate, the caretakers don't take breaks, and business is tight everywhere," an association official said. "Privately run facilities have been especially hit hard since ticket revenues form a key pillar" of earnings.

At Kobe Animal Kingdom, feeding all the animals costs 3 million yen ($28,000) per month, with a Sumatran tiger eating more than $900 of meat.

For penguins and other aquatic animals, changing water weekly means spending another 3 million yen a month.

Kobe Animal Kingdom has been closed since April 8. "We have zero revenue, and the situation has been tough," said Tetsuya Sato, the zoo director.

The same predicament faces Non Hoi Park, a combined zoo and botanical garden also located in Toyohashi, a city near Nagoya.

"April's revenue has been basically nothing," the park director said. Feeding the animals runs to 5 million yen a month. "Costs for feed have weighed heavily."

Most caretakers continue to work during the mass shutdowns. Cutting labor costs is no simple task, considering that different animals have different needs and specialists take care of incubating eggs and babies.

Kobe Animal Kingdom looks to make do by preselling tickets at a discount, good for when the park reopens. A zoo in Fukuoka Prefecture is raising money through crowdfunding to offset lost revenue from tickets and mobile zoo events.

The association has organized fundraising events to help out members in an event of a natural disaster. But with the shutdown affecting member zoos and aquariums nationwide, its ability to meaningfully provide financial assistance is limited. It is doing what it can, sending such supplies as masks and disinfecting alcohol.

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