A message from David Field, chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, writing in today's Friends of the Scotsman:
It would be fair to say my first six weeks as chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have been extraordinary. In many ways, returning to RZSS been a homecoming as I spent my formative years as an animal keeper at Edinburgh Zoo and even met my wife while working here.
Normally, I would have expected the doors of Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, our sister site near Aviemore, to be wide open. But these have not been normal circumstances and when I arrived at the start of June we were closed to the public.
It was somewhat to surreal to be walking alone around our parks in those first few weeks in what was effectively my own private zoo. The animals sensed the difference and quite frankly missed the interactions with the visitors, who are as much a stimulation for the animals as vice versa.
Like many other organisations, we have been facing many challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Penguins cannot be furloughed. Neither can lions, tigers, polar bears or any other animals. Food bills of tens of thousands of pounds a month still need to be paid. Animals still need vets. Keepers still needed to look after the thousands of animals we care for.
A zoo may close its gates but life goes on behind the scenes. The closure of our parks for more than three months has cost RZSS millions of pounds. It was, therefore, with huge anticipation and relief that we reopened our doors a fortnight ago.
Yet, opening our parks once again is just the first step in our recovery. We are immeasurably grateful to our supporters who donated, fundraised, took out memberships, adopted animals and helped us in other ways. These phenomenal efforts raised £1 million and made sure our animals received the very best of care when we were closed. But we are not out of the woods yet.
With a limit on visitor numbers to enable social distancing, we face vastly reduced income over the summer holidays. Millions in government loans will have to be repaid, which will place enormous financial strain on our charity and impact on our parks and vital conservation activities.
The very existence of the wildcat and pine hoverfly in Scotland depends on our work continuing. Chimpanzees in Uganda will be at increased risk of poaching if we can no longer support our long-standing partnership with the Budongo Conservation Field Station. Our world leading genetic and genomic research underpins the survival of species around the world.
There are, however, reasons for optimism. The smiles on the faces of our returning visitors were a joy to behold. Somewhat ironically, the rain poured down on our opening day but that could not dampen spirits. During lockdown, many of us have sought a renewed relationship and appreciation of nature, whether that be the birds in our garden or the beauty of skies free of pollution. Such increased connectedness to nature brings huge benefits in wellbeing.
Zoos have an amazing ability to harness this enthusiasm and to encourage and empower people to engage with nature and have a positive impact on the environment. We are also in a unique position to provide a haven for threatened species, protect animals in the wild, inspire the conservationists of tomorrow and make nature accessible to all.
The coronavirus pandemic is a result of society’s abuse of nature. Our precious planet is out of balance. We must repair nature, we must restore ecological purity. The essential work and international collaborations of environmental NGOs, including RZSS, is now more urgent than ever to protect and restore our beloved natural world.
Everyone in Scotland and every community can play a part. These last few months has shown how much people love Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park and today we launch our survival fund to help ensure we can realise shared aspirations for generations to come and play our essential role in protecting our beautiful planet.
Find out how you can support the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland at rzss.org.uk/help.