Wanted: Animal Godparents for Chilean Zoo in 'Bleak' Year

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Santiago

By Reuters TV

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Oliver the rhinoceros, King Julien the lemur, Chilly Willy the penguin and their friends are urgently seeking sponsors for their bed and board in a Chilean zoo as visitors have dwindled to zero with the arrival of coronavirus.

Buin Zoo, on the outskirts of the capital Santiago, is ordinarily one of the city's top attractions but it is struggling to stay afloat in an extraordinary year.

Visitor numbers dropped off during widespread social protests over inequality that started in October with looting and arson attacks at their fringes. The coronavirus outbreak in March shut down the zoo, capping a "bleak" year, Ignacio Idalsoaga, the zoo's director, said in an interview.

The home to 2,500 animals from around the world with massive appetites is struggling to find its $400,000 - $500,000 monthly operating costs, he said.

Its residents consume 400 kilos of apples and 1,000 kilos of fish each week, 2,500 kilos of meat each month, and 7,200 bales of oats and alfalfa annually.

"The amounts are quite breathtaking. There are many mouths to feed," said Idalsoaga.

The zoo, which will reopen on Sept. 29 with new health protocols, has turned to habitual visitors for help.

"Godparents" can pay $2,500 ($3) to $90,000 ($118) to receive photos, certificates, educational files and cuddly toys of 15 "emblematic" animals, as well as entry passes for when it reopens.

Carlos Casanova, a local teacher with three kids, is now godfather to several animals as well.

"It's a nice institution which does a lot of good for children and treats its animals well, so it made us sad to see them struggling," he said.

Chile is gradually lifting its lockdowns after hitting the peak of infections in June and July. So far, the country has had more than 430,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 11,800 deaths.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Fabian Cambero and Aislinn Laing; Editing by Richard Chang)