Thousands of animals could be slaughtered and species could face extinction if the government does not rethink its COVID-19 funding for zoos across England, a charity has said.
The £100 million Zoo Animals Fund was introduced to help licensed zoos facing financial difficulties from the pandemic continue to feed and care for their animals.
However, in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the British and Irish Association for Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) has condemned the scheme over its eligibility restrictions, which could lead to permanent closures and animals being put down if they cannot be rehomed.
Out of the 300 licensed zoos across England, it was revealed that just 34 organisations have been awarded funding so far, which altogether amounts to £6 million. From the end of February, zoos will no longer be able to access this funding.
Andy Hall from BIAZA said: “The Zoo Animals Fund has been set up with completely inappropriate eligibility criteria, which excludes the vast majority (80%) of organisations.
“Essentially, zoos have to be 12 weeks away from bankruptcy before receiving money from the fund. For most zoos, this is no good, because by 12 weeks, we would already be closing down and trying to rehome our animals.
“The money comes in far too late to help and so most zoos won’t get down to the 12 weeks and aren’t going to receive any financial aid in this time of need.”
He added that while many sectors in this country have been funded to stay open, zoos and aquariums appear to have been funded to close down their businesses, despite bringing in £30 million a year from visitors pre-pandemic.
Widespread closures could mean that thousands of animals and endangered species will have to be rehomed.
A spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), said: “If zoos are downsizing or rehoming their collections, the fund can also provide support for this to support the animals’ welfare.”
Due to the financial implications of the pandemic, many UK zoos are simply not able to accommodate more animals.
Meanwhile, Brexit could also raise issues surrounding the transportation of animals to European zoos, despite Boris Johnson’s emphasis on ethical transportation of livestock in Brexit negotiations.
Reflecting on the impact of the pandemic, Jamie Christon from Chester Zoo said: “Without access to the support from the government’s £100m Zoo Fund due to the eligibility criteria being far too restrictive, the pandemic has left us with a £10 million hole in our finances.”
He added that while the government has recognised the high running costs of maintenance and feeding animals at zoos across the country, the criteria disregards activities relating to conservation and education.
Without funding for conservation programmes, endangered species could also be at risk of extinction.
Labour MP, Justin Madders said “There is no doubt that the government has been repeatedly warned that the current fund is not fit for purpose and is putting zoos and aquariums in a very difficult position.
“Animals cannot be furloughed and need to continue to be looked after and fed; it is time the government really listened to the concerns of zoos and aquariums and came forward with a proper fund that allowed them to ensure they will be able to keep going until they are able to reopen.”