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Dallas Zoo will furlough staff, close Fair Park aquarium as coronavirus cuts into its revenue

The zoo remains open but also plans to permanently shut down its recently renovated monorail.

The city-owned Dallas Zoo announced Thursday furloughs to about one-quarter of its staff and other cost-saving measures as it deals with the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The furloughs for more than 100 of the zoo’s 400-plus full-time, part-time and seasonal workers go into effect this weekend. The zoo will also cut pay for senior employees up to 15%.

At least 75 open positions at the zoo are frozen, and long-term employees are being offered early-retirement incentives.

“The conversations we are having right now are some of the most difficult I’ve experienced as a leader,” the zoo’s president and CEO, Gregg Hudson, said in a statement announcing the measures aimed at stabilizing the zoo’s financial footing. “Our team members are among the most dedicated professionals with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working.”

The Dallas Zoo plans to permanently close the Children's Aquarium at Fair Park.
The Dallas Zoo plans to permanently close the Children's Aquarium at Fair Park.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

The zoo is also planning to “wind down operations and permanently close” its Adventure Safari Monorail and the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park, which it operates, the statement said. The monorail reopened in 2016 with $3 million in renovations after persistent electrical problems closed it for a year and a half.

“We are all facing the harsh reality that the fallout of this global pandemic will be lasting and far-reaching,” Hudson said. “We are now faced with a very dim financial forecast and are at the point where we have to be fiscally responsible to protect the longterm future of the zoo with these very difficult decisions.”

Guests wearing face masks take pictures of a giraffe at the Dallas Zoo on Thursday.
Guests wearing face masks take pictures of a giraffe at the Dallas Zoo on Thursday.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

The zoo, which is in east Oak Cliff, closed to the public in mid-March as cases of COVID-19 first showed up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Essential employees continued working on-site to care for the animals and maintain the zoo, while others worked from home. About half of the zoo’s seasonal workers were furloughed in April, and roughly two-thirds of them were brought back when the zoo prepared to reopen at the end of May.

The closure during what the zoo says is its busiest season resulted in more than $5 million in lost revenue, according to the zoo, which is managed by a nonprofit organization and is dependent on guests paying for admission, concessions, rides and events, as well as memberships and donations. Donors gave more than $750,000 when the zoo created an emergency operations fund, and the facility also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

The reopening coincided with a plateau in coronavirus cases in Dallas County, but the zoo’s fortunes fell as the county’s numbers surged.

A statue in front of the Lacerte Family Children's Zoo sports a mask and caution tape at the Dallas Zoo.
A statue in front of the Lacerte Family Children's Zoo sports a mask and caution tape at the Dallas Zoo.(Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

“We reopened in late May with brisk ticket sales indicating there was a strong interest from our guests in returning to the zoo as soon as our gates were open,” Hudson said in the statement. “As the COVID-19 case count rose in the area, however, we began to see our attendance numbers drop.”

The zoo is forecasting its revenue to be at least 25% lower than projected for the rest of this year and into next year.

“While we’ve been cautious and conservative in our projections, there is no roadmap for this recovery,” Hudson said.

The zoo remains open with safety modifications, including time-based ticketing and hand-sanitizing stations. Some attractions that were originally closed have reopened, including the giraffe feeding platform, the herpetarium and the indoor gorilla viewing area.

Guests stop for shaved ice beneath the Adventure Safari Monorail at the Dallas Zoo on Thursday.
Guests stop for shaved ice beneath the Adventure Safari Monorail at the Dallas Zoo on Thursday.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

Tom Steele, Breaking News Producer. Tom has covered breaking news for The Dallas Morning News since 2016. He has worked in a number of other capacities for The News since 2007, and he was previously a copy editor at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla. He has degrees in journalism and economics from Lehigh University.

tsteele@dallasnews.com tomsteele
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