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It’s been anything but “Zootopia” for Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The last visitor passed through the turnstiles in mid-March. The only thing on display now is a donation website for supporters to help ensure the zoo’s future.

“I feel pretty strongly that we should get our zoo opened up sooner rather than later.” – Dr. Rais Vohra, interim Fresno County Health officer

But a glimmer of hope has emerged from an unlikely place: The Fresno County Department of Public Health.

In as radiant of a fashion as can be done on a Zoom call, Dr. Rais Vohra exclaimed, “I did advocate for our zoo (to state officials). I feel pretty strongly that we should get our zoo opened up sooner rather than later.”

The zoo doesn’t fall into either Phase 2 or 2.5 of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s roadmap to recovery. It appears to fall into Phase 3 when entertainment venues can reopen.

Phone Call With the State

The county’s interim health officer explained that the zoo was one of his top items during a Tuesday phone call with state Department of Public Health Director Dr. Sonia Angell.

“I just kind of planted that seed in her mind, and hopefully that will inspire either a statewide or at least a local permission to get the zoo opened up,” Vohra said. “The zoo has been doing fantastic work preparing to get get to a point where they can reopen safely.”

Vohra emphasized the talent and expertise of the zoo’s employees.

“Because they’re biologists, and because they understand germ theory, and because they really take care of all of their animals which are very fragile organisms. I fully trust they will do a fantastic job with keeping the rest of the community safe,” Vohra said.

Financial Pain

The zoo’s director, Scott Barton, speaking Tuesday on KMJ’s Broeske and Musson Show, said there are still animals to feed, and $340,000 of expenses a week.

“We do get about 30% of our operating budget from Measure Z (sales tax). But, that leaves 70% that we have to self generate through entrance, memberships, birthday parties, education programs, and giraffe feeding,” Barton said. “We were fortunate to get a PPP loan which helped us keep our entire staff in place.”

Barton said that the PPP loan will run out soon, and the zoo will face revenue challenges.

Measure Z

Over the past 10 years, Measure Z has generated $110 million. About $33 million supports zoo operations, and about $66 million is dedicated to capital improvement projects.

The first Measure Z expired in 2014 and was extended by Fresno County voters in 2014 for another 10 years.

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