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Port Lympne, Howletts, Wildwood and Wingham wildlife parks demand reopening date after lockdown easing

Wildlife parks across Kent are pleading for visitors to be allowed in.

After closing more than 10 weeks ago due to the Covid-19 pandemic, centres including Howletts, Port Lympne, Wingham Wildlife Park and Wildwood had been gearing up to re-open their doors.

Zoos have been shut since March, including Port Lympne pictured here
Zoos have been shut since March, including Port Lympne pictured here

However at midnight on Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that zoos will not be allowed to open their doors to the public for a while to come.

An effort is now being made to lobby MPs ahead of Thursday, June 11, when a debate on the extended ban will take place in parliament.

Already, these sites have been struggling financially. Bosses at Herne Bay's Wildwood believe a further four weeks of being closed will cost them about £200,000.

A statement released by the trust continues: "We cannot sustain that for long. Some of the biggest zoos in the UK have been told by the government to prepare to remain closed indefinitely.

"As a small charity Wildwood could not survive that.

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Animals of all shapes and sizes could suffer if zoos are forced to close indefinitely
Animals of all shapes and sizes could suffer if zoos are forced to close indefinitely

"Today you can visit a National Trust garden, Kew Gardens, castle grounds, but not a wildlife park. Public parks and beaches have been full of people.

"Soon, all non-essential retail shops like Primark will be open but you can’t come and walk around an open space with animals.

"Mental health has been hugely impacted by this pandemic and being in a safe outdoor space and connecting with nature is exactly what people need."

Wildwood had planned to re-open yesterday and had already prepared a range of measures to ensure visitors' safety.

A one-way system has been put in, visitors must book a time slot ahead of time online, and additional toilets and hand sanitising stations have been installed.

Wildwood staff have been posting video diaries throughout lockdown

All internal buildings will be closed and recorded videos of the animal talks will be available for people to watch.

These measures have been echoed at many parks, as well as frustration at being unable to welcome visitors.

A spokeswoman for the Aspinall Foundation - which runs Howletts, near Canterbury, and Port Lympne in Hythe - said: "Despite all of our preparations to reopen responsibly we have been forced to keep our gates closed and wait to be allowed to welcome our visitors back.

"The Covid-19 outbreak has had a devastating impact on both Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve and Howletts Wild Animal Park. The longer we are forced to keep our gates closed, the more our debt mounts and the more precarious our situation becomes.

Lion cubs are among the recent additions to Port Lympne
Lion cubs are among the recent additions to Port Lympne

"Anyone who has visited us at Port Lympne knows that we are much more than a zoo. We are a team of true conservationists who adore the animals in our care and truly believe in the work we do.

"Our work with The Aspinall Foundation has returned hundreds of animals back to the wild, where they belong. Our projects around the world support thousands of animals in dire need of protection.

"The continuation of lockdown threatens the survival of our Parks, the future of our groundbreaking conservation work, the care of our beautiful animals and the livelihoods of hundreds of dedicated and hard-working individuals.

"We believe that we should be allowed to reopen alongside public gardens and other outdoor visitor attractions. Port Lympne offers 600 acres of stunning outdoor space and we have taken extensive preparations to ensure we can responsibly reopen, offering the people of Kent a much-needed day out.

Visitors to Howletts will get to see a baby elephant born just before lockdown started
Visitors to Howletts will get to see a baby elephant born just before lockdown started

"We are pleased to hear that this is to be debated in parliament on June 11, we are urging all our supporters to lobby their local MPs to take part in this debate which could lead to a relaxation of the rules and enable us to reopen in the very near future.”

Wingham Wildlife Park is feeling the pinch too, with its sister site in Sandwich also draining the coffers.

Staff streamlining and donations from the public have aided the effort to stay open, however bosses are still desperate to re-open.

Markus Wilder, the parks' curator, explained: “When we first started this shut down, before we were able to reclaim funds for furloughed employees, and while we were still working out where and how we could scale down it was still costing us £52,600 per week.

Wingham Wildlife Park has been massively helped by donations from the public
Wingham Wildlife Park has been massively helped by donations from the public

"We’ve managed to scale this back a little now, but not an awful lot, with this figure changing every week depending on what is donated and which veterinary charges we might have.”

The park has gained an online following for its live tours streamed on social media platforms, and has thanked the public for donating items on an Amazon wishlist.

Tony Binskin, owner and managing director of the parks, said he couldn't put into words how appreciative he was for the donations but added: "At times the support from the public has been overwhelming, and whilst the postal and delivery drivers may not have always agreed, the help with the Amazon wish list in particular has just been so incredible.

"I think because people know exactly what they are donating, and as it is a physical thing which they can see, its really been something people could get behind.

Wingham Wildlife Park seeks to re-open as soon as possible
Wingham Wildlife Park seeks to re-open as soon as possible

"People often think, especially when they’re buying something like a jar of peanut butter, a bag of almonds or a single tub of locusts, that their £3 or £5 items isn’t going to have a huge impact.

"But when they all get added up, that’s over £15,000 worth of things which we have not had to worry about - £15,000 we could use to pay wages.”

In total, 1,305 items have been donated to the Wingham Wildlife parks with a total value of £15,470.

However Mr Binskin is still hoping to reopen soon, and has asked supporters to write a letter to their MP demanding a U-turn on the extended closures.

He notes a template letter can be found on the website of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Roger Gale supports the campaign to re-open wildlife parks
Roger Gale supports the campaign to re-open wildlife parks

One Kent MP has already stepped forward to champion the cause.

North Thanet MP Roger Gale said: "As a family who are members and staunch supporters of Wildwood we want to see our wildlife parks open again as soon as possible.

"Because of the current participation arrangements in the House of Commons I shall not be able to speak in the debate on Thursday but I have tabled a written question and am in direct contact with ministers about this.

"East Kent`s wildlife parks together make a significant contribution to our community as an education and conservation resource and to our tourist economy.

"They also cost a great deal to run and the animals and birds have to be looked after, with or without lockdown.

"We all have to work to get Wildwood and all our wildlife parks up and running and safely back in business."

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