The last day of 2020 – The year no one wanted.
We started the year on a high, visitor numbers were up and we were looking forward to a prosperous year, which soon changed in to the most uncertain year any of us have ever known.
We have guided the zoo through, despite the enormous challenges and uncertainties we faced, and continue to do so – and there have been highs and more lows along the way.
When the news hit that we wold must close, no one knew what the future would hold. The public support was amazing, and we couldn’t have got through it without the generosity, positivity and support of our members, visitors, local businesses and donors. Whilst other businesses were able to close and almost completely minimise cost, that just isn’t possible in a zoo. Animals don’t stop, they still need to eat, stay warm, receive veterinary care and be cared for in exactly the same way with exactly the same high standards as they were before. That was a long three months and one that I think is finally catching up with me!
The news that we were able to re-open in July was great. After three long, hard months we thought there was light at the end of the tunnel. We introduced one-way systems, 2m markings, extra cleaning regimes, limited visitor numbers, installed extra sanitisers etc throughout the whole zoo. The summer brought with it the cashflow that all zoos so desperately needed. For us the summer was great, and our visitors thought the same. A safe, enjoyable breather in the fresh air.
Typically, the three months we were closed, including the Easter holidays (usually one of our busiest times), the weather was stunning, and not a day of rain was had. Until we reopened, Cue cloud and rain – But that didn’t deter our guests from visiting!
We, along with other zoos fought throughout the year for government help, that many other industries started to receive. Where we could, we made use of the furlough scheme, which was a great help. Then news came that the Government had announced the ‘Zoo Support Fund’, which many of us thought would be a great help to many. Unfortunately, the fund has not been what was promised, even after the extension from £14m to £100m. The paperwork and forms to access this fund are written in such a way that actually, the money is inaccessible.
The press got hold of the ‘support’ fund story, and made it sound like the fund was the saving grace we all needed - and in turn the donations that many zoos had been surviving on from the public dried up, without them knowing that the fund was inaccessible to nearly every zoo.
Then came the November lockdown, we were forced to shut yet again. Garden centres, parks and botanical gardens could all stay open, it just made no sense. We opened on 2nd December, and after two weeks opening again, we were placed in tier 4 and had to close. We re-arranged bookings, animal experiences and tours etc, furloughed the staff we could and decided that this time, with no end date, we would have to ride it out like we did back in March. This was a kick in the teeth, and a gut-wrenching decision.
Then on Christmas Eve, the Government quietly made an amendment to tier 4 guidelines which stated that outdoor parts of zoos could open. What are you supposed to do? Open? When our visitors have been given a stay at home order, and four days before we were told to close? I can only conclude that we have been told we can open so that once again, it is another factor that goes against accessing the zoo ‘support’ fund. When we closed back in March and asked for sector specific help we were specifically told by DEFRA that, ‘zoos were never told to close’. So now, they can directly tell us that we are allowed to open, and on that basis won’t let us access the fund.
When you break it down, we are safer than the local park, the supermarket, and a lot of other areas that are still being frequented, whether that be to buy essentials or get your daily outside exercise. We have the added benefit of being able to clean more regularly and being able to limit numbers – You can’t do that in the local country park!
We are currently in discussions about moving forward and re-opening and will review this again soon.
But, on a year in review there have been many silver linings and positive news throughout. We have worked exceptionally hard throughout the year, something that is evident when you visit. A lot of animals have moved or had upgrades to their enclosures and houses (98% of which is built in house by our own hands), we have said goodbye to animals leaving for other collections and we have also welcomed new species throughout the year.
We had two rusty spotted cats born this year, one in April and another in August. We were however, forced to hand raise the latter. Mum is normally extremely good at rearing kittens however she still had one older offspring with her from early 2020, which is where her priorities stayed. We took the decision to step in after we knew that he wasn’t getting fed, and now almost adult and approaching maturity the kitten is now a permanent resident back at the centre until he leaves us to be paired up with a young lady in the coming months. No more 2 hourly feeds throughout the day and night! Our keepers can look back on that achievement as a first for the centre, and a first for them with this species. The successful rearing is testament to their dedication and professionalism, and something that we can often forget in such a fast-paced environment – It’s good to have little reminders every now and again.
Our cockroach programme back in February hit headlines once again both here in the UK, as well as Australia and Japan!
We successfully introduced two of our porcupines and are confident we will soon have a birth.
We welcomed maned wolves back to the centre, which we were all incredibly excited and proud about, and one of probably three stand out moments for myself and the animal team this year. We also recently had our latest species, short-beaked echidnas arrive which are settling in off-show at the moment.
For BBC Radio Kent listeners, keep an eye out for our new regular feature on what we are getting up to here at the centre every few weeks.
Looking forward in to 2021 we have an exciting year ahead, should everything go to plan. We still have a couple of species that arrived this year (2020) that we have not yet announced for various reasons, and we can’t wait to let you know! We are finishing off a few new enclosures that we have begun (funds and re-opening allowing) and our tayra will be moving to a new tree top enclosure. Our lemurs will also be getting an upgrade - as well as a new lemur walkthrough exhibit, making up part of our ‘Fragile Forests’ area. Our evening tours have also proved so successful both last year and this year, that we will be opening a new ‘Safari Trek’ route for evenings, highlighting lots of our current and new nocturnal species! We also have some exciting births that will be taking place and the opening of new areas – such as that for our echidnas and more areas that I will have to keep under wraps for now, along with some exciting media projects!
So, although the beginning of 2021 is still looking uncertain, lets hope that the coming weeks and months begin to shine light on a year to come that we all really need.
Stay safe, and have a happy new year – P.S. Please stay at home tonight!
Adam Hemsley - HCC Director