With Foot Traffic Gone, Roer’s Zoofari Navigates New Reality

The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially rough for Roer’s Zoofari, a local family-owned zoo and safari in the Hunter Mill District, that is temporarily closed.

With no foot traffic due to stay-at-home orders, zoo staff work in tight shifts to care for animals. Some take walks with animal care staff where children during field trips and other guests would have walked to enjoy the zoo’s cheetah, zebra, water buffalo, and other animals.

Owner and CEO Vanessa Roer says the last eight weeks have been an emotional roller coaster.

Just as COVID-19 led to a local standstill, the zoo had little to bank on in the months where it typically sees visitation pick up due to birthday parties, field trips, and warming temperatures.

“Most days we keep our chins up, but every so often, we lock ourselves in the walk-in cooler and scream and cry in frustration. Then we go outside and kiss our giraffe, hug a baby goat and step forward — one step at a time.”

The zoo turned to crowdfunding when it became clear that it would take time for funding from the Small Business Administration to cash in. Typically, the zoo does not make enough revenue to cover off-season costs from November through the end of February.

“We plan for four months of little income, but we never saw months five and six with zero income,” Roer said.

The business moved quickly to furlough all non-essential employees.

The crowdfunding campaign has raised $34,786 of its $100,000 goal — a response that Roer said went beyond what she expected. Community members have donated produce, meat, dry feed, and hay to help out.

But it took 28 days for the business to receive funds from GoFundMe as other residents and businesses raced to online platforms to secure cash flows.

“I literally processed payroll at the beginning of that week without enough money to cover the Friday distribution — on a wing and prayer,” Roer said.

Although funding soon began pouring in — the zoo received a Paycheck Protection Program loan that covered two months of payroll — the zoo still needs money to keep afloat through June.

A federal loan through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance is critical to the longterm success of the zoo. After technical hiccups on its first application, the Zoofari is still waiting on securing that loan since applying on March 31.

“Since our revenue is seasonal, each day we are closed, we are not earning money that will be saved for next winter,” Roer said. “Just getting by right now will mean that we may not get by in 9-12 months.”

Still, the animals are getting good care, she says. Roer’s veterinarian is making visits to the zoo and mask-wearing staff work in pairs to take care of animals.

Donations are still needed, Roer said. If the zoo does not pay its mortgage payments by June 1, the business could go back to its previous owner. So far, a forbearance period lasts until June 1. Funds are also needed to pay for health benefits, insurance, utilities and veterinary care.

Photo via Roer’s Zoofari/Facebook

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