Executive director at The Utica Zoo on losing $1 million in funding in 2020 and what the organization has doneo stay viable
Interview by David Podos
The Utica Zoo has served the region for over 100 years. With a total employment of 25 people and a budget of $2.2 million, the zoo draws thousands of visitors every year.
Q: What is your operating budget?
A: When I first started here in 2011 our operational budget was around $785,000. Currently our annual operational budget is at $2.2 million.
Q: What demographic slice of the population does the Utica Zoo serve?
A: Well we serve everyone from babies to seniors.
Q: Do you draw visitors from outside Mohawk Valley?
A: We are seeing so many people coming to the zoo from many different zip code areas. We see people from every state in the nation every year. However, on a daily basis we see people from all across Central New York and of course the Utica region. Outside that geographic area many people are coming from the 518 area code region, which is Albany. We see many people as well from Binghamton and from the Syracuse area.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your organization?
A: We had to close for 107 days during our peak season last year. We are still not permitted to hold our annual special events, not having those events we incurred a loss last year of over $300,000. All said, we lost about a million dollars from our operational budget in 2020. We are still not sure about our special events if we can hold them or not for this year. We are also limited to one third occupancy for the time being. That said, the crowds have been phenomenal this year. We are breaking attendance records even at one third capacity compared to last year.
Q: That’s great news. How do you explain that?
A: One of things we have been doing to garner additional money is the collection of bottles and cans. People come to the zoo and drop them off. Believe it or not we actually made over $20,000 on those collections last year. The bottles are not for the public but for the zoo so we can raise those much-needed dollars. I also need to recognize one of our true and local guardian angels, Dr. Joan Sinnott. Ph.D. She gave us a challenge last year that if we could raise $20,000 each month from April through the end of October she would match it. That brought in over $250,000 that we desperately needed which allowed us to stay open.
Q: Many businesses had to actually close their doors and walk away due to the COVID -19 pandemic. What makes the zoo different from most businesses?
A: That is true, many businesses had to close, some for good. Others could close and then reopen when it was appropriate. We could not do that here. The animals still need to be fed, they need medicines and, of course, ongoing veterinary care to keep them healthy.
Q: Not too long ago the Utica Zoo received accreditation from AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). How important is that?
A: It is a really big deal to receive accreditation from AZA. There are over 3,500 animal themed destinations here in the United States. Of the 3,500 only 240 are accredited through AZA. It is a stringent application and inspection process. We don’t get direct funding from AZA, but we get information on grants and grant sources. There are also conferences we can attend to share information etc. The accreditation commission evaluates every zoo or aquarium to make sure it meets AZA’s standards for animal welfare, care, and management, including living environments, social groupings, health and nutrition.
The Utica Zoo is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday – Sunday. The zoo is open all year only closing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It can be reached at 315-738-0472.