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Belfast Zoo eats £5m of council funds - but former Lord Mayor insists attraction won't be shut down

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Belfast Zoo. Pic by Peter Morrison

Belfast Zoo. Pic by Peter Morrison

Belfast Zoo. Pic by Peter Morrison

A former Lord Mayor of Belfast has warned against any attempt by councillors to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to try and shut down Belfast Zoo.

Jim Rodgers wants the City Hall to keep on using public cash to fund the visitor attraction despite it being closed for the foreseeable future and on course to lose up to £5 million this year.

"Unfortunately, the financial loss is just one of those things caused by coronavirus," said the veteran Ulster Unionist politician.

"What should not happen is for anyone to use this to make a case again to close the zoo. It is not closing down, I can assure you of that."

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak Belfast Zoo, which employs dozens of staff, needed a £2.5m yearly ratepayers' subsidy to keep afloat.

With its gates now shut because of social distancing, and with no date to reopen, the Antrim Road attraction has plunged further into the financial mire.

The zoo did make some income from entrance and merchandise fees, but that too has been lost due to the virus.

Early estimates point to ratepayers having to fork out £5m this financial year - double the normal commitment - to keep the closed zoo operational. Most of the cash is spent on staff wages and feeding, heating and cleaning the animals and their enclosures.

This huge monetary drain comes at a time when local government budgets face being slashed. It also coincides with having to continue paying other council employees who are not working because of Covid-19.

This, alongside having to maintain buildings, is having a massive impact on the City Hall's cash reserves.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak there was around £13m in the coffers, carefully built up from a worrying low of £4m a decade ago after the Audit Office raised concerns. However, insiders say the 'rainy day' fund is now dwindling by over £1m per month.

In light of this some suspect proposals to close the zoo as a money-saving measure will be raised again.

Sinn Fein, whose Castle councillor Conor Maskey (left) previously described the caging of animals as "unethical and wrong", said the party had no comment to make on speculation over its future.

At last month's full council meeting members agreed a motion to "reaffirm support for Belfast Zoo, and its staff, and its long term sustainability and future investment".

They also committed to a "moral and compassionate approach to the animals in the zoo and to ensure a future use that is conservation-centred, educational, looking specifically at ecology, and economically modelled so that it ends the burden on the ratepayer".

The motion was passed after weeks of speculation about the zoo's future prompted by Sinn Fein claims it is outdated and financially unsustainable.

Animal rights activists have also criticised the attraction following separate escapes by chimpanzees and a red panda, and the death of a giraffe which accidentally strangled itself while feeding.

The zoo's 55 acre site on the slopes of Cave Hill country park occupies a prime piece of real estate offering spectacular views of Belfast Lough.

Nearby properties regularly change hands for in excess of £300,000 and property developers are known to be keen to get their hands on the land.

cbarnes@sundaylife.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph