EXCITEMENT levels are high at Fota Wildlife Park, as staff prepare to reopen to the public on Monday.
Park director Sean McKeown, who was one of the overseers of the park’s creation back in the 1980s, said he is delighted to see its doors reopen after a difficult few months.
“By the beginning of March, nobody could see the end of what was happening,” he said.
“The roll-out of the vaccination wasn’t happening and we were looking at the summer ahead.
“We had no income, we knew we wouldn’t survive the winter, we wouldn’t even make September.
“There was a possibility as things went on, it was looking gloomier and gloomier, there was no tunnel, never mind light at the end of it. Things were getting worse and worse. Globally things were getting worse. There was huge doubt about what was going to happen this summer, what level would we be in.
“We lost €1.5m from the middle of March to the end of May . The two weeks of Easter are usually enormous. In 2019, 60,000 people came to the park in April.”
Fota is a non-profit organisation and is also a registered conservation charity. A large portion of its income comes from daily visitors, annual-pass sales, and gift-shop revenue.
Sean said the outpouring of support from the public following their campaign to save the wildlife park was overwhelming.
“People were very upset; they were worried about the animals and what was happening; they wanted to help and some wanted to do fundraising,” he said.
Sean said the campaign by Fota Wildlife Park was simply to make people aware of the effects of the prolonged closure.
“We were saying this is what could happen and what was getting closer to happening, and we wanted to put pressure on the Government to make a decision,” he said. “We are delighted to be opening again.”
Sean highlighted the positive knock-on effect visitors to the park have on the local economy, with visitors drawn by the park spending millions in the area on accommodation, food, and drink. He estimates the park is worth €180m to the local area in June, July, August, and September.
The operational running costs at Fota are approximately €380,000 a month. Feeding and veterinary care for the 135 species also continues and the animals in the park receive the same excellent level of care year-round, regardless of whether the park is open or closed.
Fota Wildlife Park ranger Jess Hodnett has been working at the park for the past decade and said she cannot wait to greet visitors back to Fota on Monday.
“I’m five years in my current job as a ranger. I used to work on the education team,” she said.
Jess completed a course at IT Tralee in wildlife biology and said she adores working with animals.
“I love animals. I’ve no favourites though — it changes every day,” she said. “I feel blessed to have this job. It’s great to be able to leave the house every day and come here.”
At the moment, Jess is assigned to the carnivore department, feeding everything from tigers and lions to penguins.
She said staff at the park have been taking precautions to ensure they are all healthy and safe to be looking after the animals.
Jess said the care teams are split up, to minimise any potential disruption from Covid-19 issues. Team meetings are less frequent, meaning they see each other less.
“It’s really different without the public,” she said. “I really miss the interaction with the public. I miss sharing stories with individuals, telling them about the conservation projects we run and the work we are doing with breeding.”
Jess said she thinks it will be interesting to see how the animals react to the return of the public.
“The ducks will definitely be delighted because they will get fed treats at the duck feeder — they definitely missed the public,” she said.
Jess thinks the more social species, such as spider monkeys, would also be happy to have a few more friendly faces around the park. The park ranger said all the staff know the animals individually and care for the animals as they would a family member.
“We have to look at them as individuals on a daily basis as part of our health checks — it’s like getting to know friends and family. They act differently, they have different markings, they have different gait, mannerisms, some very confident, some hang back, some older, younger,” she said. Jess said she is “super excited” to get the park back open and for people to return, adding: “It will be great to share all the little moments with everyone again.”
Fota Wildlife Park animal care manager Declan O’Donovan said it was business as usual in many respects while the park was closed, but it is great to see it reopen to visitors.
Declan worked as a ranger at Fota in the 1980s and returned last year after many years working with exotic animals in the Middle East.
“There is a little bit of déjà vu,” he said. “There have been a huge amount of changes and improvements since 1988. It’s a lifetime for some people. I’m from Cork originally, so it’s great to come home.”
Declan is responsible for the management of the animals, making sure they are well looked after and supervising all the rangers, ensuring they are properly trained.
He also helps with the collection plan, making a plan for the future, and the conservation element, as well as animal exchanges with other programmes.
“We run a lot of welfare audits, look at different aspects of animal welfare and how that is being managed here, and if there is anything to address,” he said.
Declan said it was great to have people returning to the park and for the park to get its message across.
“It is great to talk about the conservation work we do and have the work we are doing appreciated. Also, it’s nice to give back to the people,” he said. “They have been very, very good to us. We are very fortunate with the support from everybody. I think it showed how important the wildlife park is to the public.”
Declan said Fota Wildlife Park is a great place to visit and one of the best family activities available.
“It’s a fantastic place to come for a day. Bring the family, get some fresh air. It is one of the best things you can do at the moment. It’s a day out, outdoors, and you can avoid people. There is so much space here.”
Declan said the park was taking Covid-19 precautions very seriously.
“We encourage people to follow Government guidelines. We have closed off some enclosed areas where there might be a potential risk of people being too close to each other,” he said.
At the moment, capacity is capped at 500 people in three time-slots throughout the day, with a total of 1,500 people coming through the gates per day.
Sean added that they hope to increase the numbers in the coming weeks to meet demand.
“We are hoping to build it up quite quickly. We know we can manage the people, so we are starting slow and building it up,” he said.
“People will be able to walk the park in a one-way system and there will be one or two coffee docks open to provide refreshments for thirsty visitors.” Sean said that last year many people brought picnics to enjoy at the park and that was absolutely fine.
Visitors to the park are invited to book a trip at fotawildlife.ie, up to seven days ahead of schedule.