Longtime Oakland Zoo fans shared their memories and photos of this local institution with The Oaklandside.

Three-and-a-half months after the coronavirus pandemic forced the Oakland Zoo to close its doors to the public, the beloved local institution is staring down a major financial crisis. If the park is not able to reopen soon, zoo officials said, it may be forced to shut down permanently.

“There’s two parts to this: Can we make the zoo very, very safe to open for the visiting public so that they don’t contract the virus? And the other thing is the financial conditions—that is driving another urgency,” Dr. Joel Parrott, president and CEO of the Oakland Zoo, told The Oaklandside. “Our expense side is what is burning up our reserves.”

It costs $1.2 million per month to operate the zoo, and as of July 1, according to Parrot, the zoo had just $3.2 million left in reserves.

“Revenues don’t even matter because, at this point, we are not allowed to open. So we’ve really increased our efforts at getting donations and philanthropy to help us,” he said. “But we can’t pay all of our bills on donations alone.”

donate to the oakland zoo

The Oakland Zoo has established an Animal Care Fund where the community can donate.

The Oakland Zoo had already laid off roughly 100 part-time and seasonal workers. Until now, they’d been able to keep its full-time employees, including those who work in animal care, thanks to a state relief fund for small businesses under the federal CARES Act, but Parrott said those funds ran out on July 1. “We’ve used up the money for what it was intended for, which was payroll, keeping everybody. But now that that’s out, we’ve had to lay off 15 full-time employees,” Parrot said. “If the governor does not allow us to open up, we will run out of money,” he added. 

The zoo is now asking Alameda County to petition California Governor Gavin Newsom’s office to allow the zoo, which spans 100 acres of mostly outdoor space, to reopen partially by classifying it as an “outdoor museum” like other local parks, which have already been allowed to reopen. Zoo officials say they’re prepared to ensure safe social distancing outdoors. 

Planned safety protocols include reducing visitors by 50% with timed ticketed entrance, keeping indoor facilities closed, markings to establish physical distance between visitors, and staff on hand to sanitize railings and other surfaces throughout the zoo. “We’re going to disinfect throughout the day. We have disinfection stations, and the public has to wear a mask,” Parrott said.

For area residents who love the Oakland Zoo, the potential permanent closure of a local gem is distressing. 

Tracie Liao and her family have been Oakland Zoo members since the fall of 2015. Her family last visited the park on March 8, about one week before the county shelter-in-place order was put in place. 

“Very early on with the shelter-in-place, I saw an article about how they were eating through their savings,” she said. “It had taken them 10 years to build up these kinds of savings because they are a nonprofit, and that they were chewing through it pretty quickly,” Liao said.

Tracie Liao’s son, Cody, looking at the otters at the Oakland Zoo. May 2018. Credit: Tracie Liao

Now, four months later, Liao said she’d feel confident about taking her children back to the zoo if it were to reopen, assuming the park takes all the necessary precautions to safeguard returning patrons. 

“The zoo has probably already put a lot of thought into how they could make it safe, whether it’s limiting ticket sales, and putting markers on the ground on how to distance yourself from other visitors,” Liao said. “I do think it’s relatively safe. I would say that’s probably one of the activities that we would do.”

Another local parent, Alyssa Tomfohrde, said the zoo is much more than just entertainment for kids.

“It’s learning about the earth and our connection to it, sustainability and caring for not only humankind but the animal kingdom,” Tomfohrde said. “It’s been an amazing source of employment—a lot of people I know have worked in the zoo. They’re truly part of the community. You can feel the staff’s energy there. They’re diverse, it’s Oakland.”

Alyssa Tomfohrde’s youngest daughter, visiting the bears at the Oakland Zoo. September 2018. Credit: Alyssa Tomfohrde

The zoo currently houses over 700 animals spread across 7 areas, including a California native wildlife area and a Children’s Zoo. Throughout the year, the zoo hosts a number of educational programs and zoo camps for youth and community members. The zoo has continued offering virtual programming during shelter-in-place, and webcams have been set up throughout the park so that animal lovers can still watch certain animals, like the bears and the elephants, online. The zoo also has a YouTube channel with lots of animal videos, and even a “story time” with the animals for kids. 

Tomfohrde appreciates what the Oakland Zoo has meant to her children. “We’re living in the Bay Area, so we don’t get to afford ourselves a lot of vacations or travels. We’re not on a safari in Africa, you know, but we get to see these creatures in our own hometown,” she said. “It’s been a staple for us.”

Oliver Huang said the zoo is a place of gathering where he and his friends feel safe and not judged. “Going to the zoo has been an opportunity for our group of friends across the Bay Area to get together. We like to dress up differently,” he said. “It’s just nice to be able to do that at the zoo without anybody judging us or whatever, so it’s kind of fun.”

Oliver Huang’s friends, Roxanne Quan, Carmen Engle and Carl Santos petting a pig while zookeeper Miero Wakeman watches from a distance. Credit: Oliver Huang

Like Liao and Tomfohrde, Huang is hoping the zoo will survive the financial crisis and reopen. “I’d love to see more people going back to the zoo. I would imagine it’s probably less risky than some other things you could enjoy, like a crowded movie theater—definitely not something you want to do right now,” he added. 

Despite the closure and layoffs, daily care of the animals has remained mostly the same. 

“We’re kind of lucky in that we can come to work and feel relatively safe,” said Colleen Kinzley, the zoo’s vice president of animal care, conservation, and research. “Everybody is really good about using safety practices, and the changes that have been put in place with mask-wearing and social distancing and disinfecting and hand washing,” she said.

Kinzley was hopeful that the zoo would be able to reopen in July in a limited capacity. Now, she said, the uncertainty has her and other staff feeling anxious about the zoo’s future.

“We have had those measures in place. We really felt like we fall into the category of a safe outdoor activity for families and people going out,” she said. “And so it’s been very disappointing that we haven’t been able to open as that type of facility.”

With the zoo’s financial reserves expected to run out before the end of summer, Kinzley is hoping that those in a position to help will do so.

“We’re waiting for the opportunity to open,” she said. “But at this point, you know, we really want to be honest and say, look, we are ready.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.