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04 May 2020

Pandemic Stories: The Living Desert Prepared for a Disaster; Now the Palm Desert Zoo Is Figuring Out How to Safely Reopen When It's Time

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The Living Desert is currently running an online poll to name an African wild dog pup. The Living Desert is currently running an online poll to name an African wild dog pup.

Although the gates remain closed at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, anyone can hop onto social media to see some of the unusual breeds of animals that call this desert enclave home—all while learning from the videos, photos and descriptive content developed by the park’s team in an accelerated fashion these days.

The aim is to inform visitors about the daily lives of this nonprofit zoo’s residents—while inviting visitors to make a much-needed donation.

“We have 450 animals here who depend upon us,” said Allen Monroe, The Living Desert’s president and CEO, during a recent phone interview. “We have a commitment to them, and we’re fortunate enough to have a great animal-care team here, and a veterinary team to help support them.

“Our first action (when the shelter-at-home orders were announced) was to make sure that the needs of the animals were going to continue to be met for whatever length of time we were forced to be closed to the public. We ensured that we had months of different kinds of foods supplied to us, and all the veterinary medicines that we could project needing over the next couple of months. This way, if there are supply-chain interruptions, we’ll be able to go forward with our operations without external resources. This is part of what a modern-day zoo does. These animals are here as ambassadors for their species, and we’ve got really strong commitments for their care. We have to make sure that we can accommodate those, no matter what the situation might be.”

Part of guaranteeing the safety of these ambassadors from desert regions all over the world is managing the financial challenges brought on by the massive economic downturn that’s a result of the pandemic.

“Once the county health department closed down our park as a gathering place, our first concern was on a financial basis,” Monroe said. “We rely on gate-generated revenue for the majority of our operating expense budget. Unfortunately, we were at the start of spring break, our busiest time of year. It’s when we make enough money to help us get through the times in the summer when, because of the heat and the (drop in) tourist traffic, it is actually a money-losing time for us.

“Fortunately, we’ve practiced a number of scenarios (that focus on us) continuing our business operations. We have drills on a regular basis for everything from fires to earthquakes and things like that—although we never planned for a pandemic, obviously. I don’t think anybody had. Still, we could use some of those practice exercises to help us figure out what we needed to do in the short term, and then we could start thinking about what business operations will look like while we’re closed, and then—as soon as the county gives us the green light—how we can find a way to open back up again in a safe fashion for our guests and our staff.”

Unfortunately, one of The Living Desert’s first actions was laying off about two-thirds of the park’s workforce, mostly guest-services personnel.

“That allowed us to focus in on our core team of people who are integral in our animal-care departments and business operations,” Monroe said. “We’re like many businesses in a similar situation to us, but they can close their doors and turn off the lights. They may still have to pay rent and such, but (they don’t have) a large operational expense”—namely, taking care of the resident animal population and more than 1,200 acres of park grounds.

Fortunately, The Living Desert made preparations for the worst.

“The good news is that, over the last number of years, we’ve been able to develop an endowment fund that helps support The Living Desert,” Monroe said. “So we have relatively strong cash reserves that would get us through the next months and up to a year if we have to. That’s if we stay with just our current core team of staff people who are necessary for us to take care of the plants and the animals and the mechanical systems here in the park.

“We’ve got months and months of supplies on hand now—and even (planning for) a worst-case scenario, we’ve already started planting some lettuce. We have a horticultural department here, and we feed out lettuce as a treat to some of our animals. Our giraffes are really fond of lettuce. Also, we’ve got a large walk-in freezer that’s stacked to the brim with the different meat products that we feed to our carnivore animals.

“I used to say that we’ve planned for everything, but this virus has thrown the whole world into a new scenario of what’s possible. I think, though, that we’re in good shape.”

What most concerns Monroe during this period of wait-and-see?

“It’s making sure that we can provide a safe environment for our guests when they return,” Monroe said. “We have a COVID-19 preparedness plan that we’ve been putting in place. It specifies all the new standards for how we’re going to operate a business that (traditionally) encourages people to gather—whether it’s acrylic shields in front of cash registers, or making sure there are adequate cueing areas where people can be far enough away from each other so that they feel safe in coming back to our facility.”

While visitor-safety concerns will be crucial when the zoo reopens, comfort and convenience will be important considerations as well. For example, Monroe said The Living Desert is working on plans to move away from multi-car trams in favor of smaller vehicles that hold just one family.

“This way, guests who need an assist in moving around the park will still have an option, and by keeping it to one family, they’ll get an opportunity to see the park while not being exposed to other people unnecessarily.”

What about the educational experiences that have long been featured aspects of The Living Desert?

“We have been talking about modifying some aspects of our park. … In the past, we’ve had a Wildlife Wonder Show that we do in an amphitheater that has a capacity of about 300 people sitting shoulder to shoulder. It now seems likely that will not be the kind of event that is conducive to good health, at least for the immediate future. So we’re talking about ways to integrate spacing into that, or potentially just closing that aspect down for a while. Instead, we can just let people enjoy other parts of the park. We’ve got these great botanical gardens that have lots of really nice trails, and opportunities to walk through different desert habitats. That will be a chance for people to get back outside, get a little exercise and re-connect with nature in a safe fashion.”

Until that reopening day comes—hopefully sooner rather than later—Monroe recommends people visit the zoo’s social-media outlets. While people enjoy the original video and photo content—like the entertaining weekly update videos created by Animal Care Director RoxAnna Breitigan—they can help support the park by creating a fundraiser to support the park’s operations. According to the zoo’s Facebook page, in the month of April, some 16 fundraisers had been initiated, raising more than $10,000.

“When we were forced to shut down,” Monroe said, “we established a fundraising campaign called Mission—Animal Care. Now our supporters can, through a variety of different mechanisms, help us with just a few dollars or sometimes with thousands of dollars towards the care and support of the animals. One of the things that’s been really heartwarming is that, in sort of a spontaneous fashion, dozens and dozens of people who, instead of getting presents for their birthdays, have (done Facebook fundraisers) to have their friends give $10 to $15 that goes into a pot that then helps us provide our educational and conservation programming, as well as take care of our animals. Also, there are often comments made by the people who make donations, and they tell us what an important part of their lives (The Living Desert has been), because they came here with their parents, and now they have kids of their own. It’s nice to see that kind of multi-generational connection that we’ve been able to provide and that generates wonderful memories.”

Meanwhile, Monroe and his team are working toward the day the zoo can reopen.

“The good news about The Living Desert is that, obviously, it’s an outdoor facility, and we’ve got a great deal of room for social distancing,” he said. “It’s not like people are in a movie theater sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with somebody. So I think the nature of the product that we offer our guests will be of interest to them, and they’ll feel relatively safe going back out, once they get the green light from the governor. What we don’t know is how deep will the recession be. What amount of discretionary income might people have? But we’re prepared to staff back up as a number of guests come rolling back in, and hopefully sooner rather than later, we’ll get back up to what the attendance numbers were prior to when the COVID-19 virus hit.

“The big question is: How long will we be shut down? And when will we be able to re-open and start generating revenue again? Those are the main questions that all the businesses in the Coachella Valley are asking themselves.”

For more information, visit www.livingdesert.org or www.facebook.com/TheLivingDesert.

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