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Zoo in Prescott remains open, wild during closures

Gus, a black bear, says hello through the fence at Heritage Park Zoo on Friday, April 24, 2020. (Jesse Bertel/Courier)

Gus, a black bear, says hello through the fence at Heritage Park Zoo on Friday, April 24, 2020. (Jesse Bertel/Courier)

Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary is one of the few institutions that has remained open in Prescott during the mandatory business closures.

The zoo’s executive director, Pam McLaren, said they are able to stay open because they fall under the essential business of outdoor parks, allowing the general public to enjoy outdoor space, nature, and animals. The mandate includes certain restrictions that must be followed.

“It requires that we provide continual cleaning of the facilities and remind all visitors of the social distancing practices,” McLaren said. “We have closed playgrounds, one set of restrooms, all animal engagement programs and scheduled feedings to eliminate group type gatherings. Visitors are able to walk through the park as you would any other outdoor park.”

Raquel Luna Gardner, Heritage Park Zoo’s deputy director, explained that the layout of the property is ideal for enjoying the park while respecting social distancing.

“We’re primarily an open air park. We don’t really have buildings where people would be in close proximity, so it’s a great place for the community to come out,” Gardner said. “We’ve increased our level of cleaning and disinfection. We’ve closed some areas like our playgrounds and our gift shop, but otherwise the zoo is really open for people to come out and visit, get a little exercise and see the animals and enjoy them.”

Cancellation of educational programs, school field trips, spring events and fundraisers have resulted in a steep revenue reduction in what is typically the zoo’s busiest time of year. According to McLaren, the park was forced to furlough half of its work staff and 90% of the volunteer workforce.

“Remaining staff members are focusing on basic operation, such as animal care and public gate admissions,” McLaren said. “We are fortunate in that a select number of volunteers and employees are coming in to maintain public cleaning regimen and animal care. Local grocers continue to donate produce and meat to assist us in off-setting animal food costs.

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Heritage Park Zoo Deputy Director Raquel Luna Gardner holds baby chipmunks on Friday, April 24, 2020. (Jesse Bertel/Courier)

“The community support and donations also help us make ends meet during this much-needed time and are greatly appreciated.”

Gardner explained that diseases have impacted the zoo in the past, but not nearly as much as the COVID-19 pandemic. “There are lots of challenges right now,” Garner said. “Zoo world has experienced zoonotic disease in the past with H1N1 and West Nile, but COVID-19 is a real challenge for us because it’s impacting us on several different fronts.”

McLaren is hopeful that summer programs will remain as Arizona plans to slowly reopen in the coming months.

“We are still optimistic that our summer children’s programs such as ZooCamp and Zoolittles will remain as scheduled, even if we have to reinvent some of the programs to accommodate safety measures,” McLaren said. “We are prepared to do the same with events such as Breakfast with the Animals and Zoo By Moonlight.”

Gardner emphasized the importance of keeping the zoo open for the community: “We wanted to stay open for the community so that they did have an outlet to come out to and experience, you know, the beautiful spring that we’re having and have someplace fun to go during this challenging time. We’ve seen a lot of our members really enjoying the park, coming out even just to play on the event grounds. So that’s been really fun to see. If you haven’t been to the zoo, this is a great time to come out and visit.”

Admission fees and memberships provide food and care for the animals. To support the zoo, McLaren suggests that people consider adopting an animal, purchasing an annual membership or donating at heritageparkzoo.org.

Jesse Bertel is a reporter/videographer for the Prescott News Network. Follow him on social media @JesseBertel, email him at jbertel@prescottaz.com, or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2043.

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