Toronto

Toronto Zoo hopes losing pandas won't hurt attendance

The Toronto Zoo's panda party is almost over, and now there are concerns about whether or not the Scarborough facility will be able to reverse sagging attendance numbers without its star attraction.

Endangered Amur tigers will replace panda family, as zoo also focuses on conservation work

Breakfast for the Toronto Zoo's family of four giant pandas? About 20 kilograms of bamboo, according to the zookeeper who looks after them. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The Toronto Zoo's panda party is almost over, and now there are concerns about whether or not the Scarborough facility will be able to reverse sagging attendance numbers without its star attraction.

Da Mao and Er Shun, the two giant pandas on loan from China, and their cubs, Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, born at the zoo in late 2015, will be on display until March 18 before they're moved to Calgary. Since the pandas arrived in 2013, more than 5.8 million people have visited the zoo.

"It's been a joy," said Karyn Tunwell, the zookeeper in charge of caring for the giant pandas.

However, in 2017, the zoo missed its revenue targets by around $5 million as attendance fell short of expectations. A zoo spokesperson says a strike is partly to blame, but the zoo's recent history shows a series of ups and downs due to issues like weather or the opening of other big attractions like the Ripley's aquarium downtown.

I do think there's a really important role for the city to play in supporting a sanctuary model.- Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice

In 2018, taxpayers will spend just over $20 million to operate and maintain the zoo.

Camille Labchuk, the executive director of Animal Justice, says it's time for the zoo to reinvent itself.

"I don't think the city should be in the business of propping up the failing zoo industry," she told CBC Toronto.

"I do think there's a really important role for the city to play in supporting a sanctuary model."

Labchuk says that could include looking after animals rescued from the exotic pet trade, or circuses.

Zoo focusing on conservation work

Jennifer Tracey, the zoo's senior director of communications, says the facility will be focusing more on conservation efforts in the coming years, especially when it comes to Canadian species that are struggling with habitat loss.

"The role of really good accredited zoos has never been more critical," she said.

"As proud as we are of the work we've done with the giant panda species, there's work that needs to be done here in Canada saving and protecting the species that we have here in our own back yard. So there will be a lot more focus put on Canadian species."

New attractions opening

The zoo will continue to bring in endangered species — Amur tigers will take over the panda enclosure later this year — but Tracey says it's part of a larger effort to maintain "assurance populations" of certain species.

Amur tigers, like this one pictured at a Russian safari park in 2015, will take over the panda enclosure at the Toronto Zoo. (Reuters)

Tracey's also optimistic that new draws will get more people out to the zoo. That includes the chance to camp overnight in the area, visit the brand new Wildlife Health Centre, and an eco-trek that runs through the Rouge Valley and includes zip-lining.

Labchuk isn't so sure it will change people's feelings toward zoos, suggesting many facilities like Toronto's "glom onto endangered species" to justify their existence.

"If zoos didn't already exist, we wouldn't invent them today," she said.

About the Author

John Rieti is the senior producer of digital at CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country. In Toronto, he's covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. Outside of work, catch him cycling in search of the city's best coffee.

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