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Lobbying in the Age of COVID-19

By Alina Tugend
min read

The Power of Our Collective Voice

This time was going to be different.

More than a decade ago, during the Great Recession, the federal 2009 relief package to help businesses, organizations, and others suffering enormous losses, specifically excluded zoos and aquariums. 

“We were completely and utterly taken by surprise,” said John Calvelli, executive vice president for public affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y. “We realized we needed to think in a drastically different manner.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its members were determined that wouldn’t happen again. So, over the following years, AZA’s Government Affairs Committee—which Calvelli currently chairs—along with its members’ own government liaison programs, worked to strengthen relationships with state and federal legislators. That included educating them about their conservation work around the world and economic impact in their own communities.

Part of that effort was to establish a Zoo and Aquarium Caucus of House representatives who could advocate for institutions’ needs; 50 congress members now belong “and our goal is to get it up to 100,” said Calvelli.

That work—and the joint advocacy efforts of zoos and aquariums across the country—paid off.   

Photo of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument at dusk

Eleven years later, another economic crisis hit and Congress was patching together another major relief bill. But this time, when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law on 27 March 2020, zoos and aquariums were among the institutions eligible for economic aid.

That meant many of AZA’s 240 members—217 in the U.S.—could receive relief under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

“The first PPP really helped our members,” said Jennifer Keaton, AZA’s vice president of congressional affairs.  “But large employers with more than 500 employees were shut out.”

Government-owned institutions were also excluded from the law; about 10 percent of AZA’s membership have more than 500 staff members and 35 percent are public entities.

So, zoos and aquariums continued to lobby Congress to include larger and government-owned zoos and aquariums in the next legislative relief package—while still struggling to manage day-to-day.

For Rebecca Dietz, executive vice president of public affairs and general counsel at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, La., it all felt depressingly familiar.

“We had been in the same situation before with Hurricane Katrina, and we knew the only way to survive from a financial perspective was to enlist the federal government,” she said.

The Institute, which includes its zoo, aquarium, insectarium, and nature center, had 800 employees, so it was not eligible for PPP.

“We understood that some other AZA members were in the same boat, and we reached out,” said Dietz. “We knew we could be more impactful if we spoke with one voice and we formed a true partnership to raise awareness.”

Inside the U.S. Capitol building

A core group that included Audubon, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Fla.; the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif.; Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Neb.; the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, Calif.; the Saint Louis Zoo in St. Louis, Mo.; Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill.; the Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio; and the Wildlife Conservation Society became known as the Zoo Krewe—the spelling is a nod to the name for groups that participate in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations.

One of the first steps was to let their local, state, and federal representatives know that unlike museums, zoos and aquariums cannot lock the doors and walk away—“you can’t furlough the animals” became a popular catchphrase on social media and when talking to legislators.

Another key step was to ensure that those voting for the next relief bill “be aware that we’re all economic drivers in our community,” Dietz said. The Zoo Krewe worked together with AZA to create a one-page “case for support” document available to every institution summing up the collective impact of zoos and aquariums across the country.

“We worked really well together on developing a comprehensive message about the overall impact of AZA institutions,” she said.

And then they waited. And waited.

“I’d say the most important lesson we learned was don’t give up and stay persistent,” Dietz said.

Even while nothing seemed to move forward, they had weekly Zoo Krewe phone calls, which lobbyists and others joined as needed.

“Not only did we identify our collective need for support, but who within Congress, on the Senate side and the House side, did we need to really push for recovery legislations,” as well as which legislators individual institutions needed to lobby within their own districts and states, Dietz added.

And it wasn’t just zoos and aquariums working together—it was the entire cultural community including museums and the performing arts, Calvelli said. Under federal law, zoos and aquariums are defined as museums.

But the focus on economic relief was just one aspect of the ongoing effort. The other was working with state and local government officials to be allowed to open safely as soon as possible.

Outside the California State Capitol
Photo: California State Capitol

California already had an official organization—the California Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) that consists of 24 dues-paying members.

“We are an organization focused on monitoring legislation and have existing relationships with legislators,” said Andrea Caldwell, associate director of community and government relations at the San Diego Zoo and executive director of CAZA.

Once CAZA, like so many others, realized that the closure in March would not be for just a few weeks, they swung into action. Like the Zoo Krewe, they knew they needed to piece together on a state level all the information about their facilities—including how many employees they had, how many species they cared for, and their economic impact.

“We were able to speak with a unified voice to the governor’s office on the challenges to zoos and aquariums if they remained closed for a long period of time,” Caldwell said.

Early on CAZA heard from other states—Washington in particular—that it had been beneficial for them to submit a collective reopening plan, and “that spurred CAZA to create a broad framework under which we could reopen.”

One of the biggest difficulties, she noted, was figuring out what entity was making the decisions on reopening, as that seemed to switch without notice from counties to state and from the governor’s office to the state Department of Public Health.

“It continued to be a moving target,” Caldwell said.

While zoos were allowed to reopen in June in California, aquariums, being indoor were not; it depended upon the number of COVID cases in their counties. That left Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey, Calif., which is located in an area that has remained in California’s “purple” tier—the most restrictive—closed for more than a year and not knowing when it would be allowed to reopen.

Since it costs $1.3 million weekly to care for the animals, maintain the facilities, and pay staff—without any admissions revenue—the Aquarium has laid off 40 percent of its employees, said Eleanore Humphries, federal ocean conservation policy manager at the Aquarium.

She was actively involved with the Zoo Krewe and the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, which includes 24 AZA-accredited aquariums across 19 states and played a critical role in engaging Congress through briefings and outreach.

Inside the U.S. Capitol building

“The state of affairs here at our Aquarium puts a real fine point on why we needed that push across a national coalition of aquariums and zoos,” she said.  And she believes those efforts led directly to the funding zoos and aquariums expect to receive in the second and third COVID relief bills.

The $900 billion bill, signed into law at the end of December, lowered the number of workers that businesses and organizations could employ from 500 to 300 to be eligible for PPP, but it provided $15 billion for a section of the law called the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. It is under this provision that the larger zoos and aquariums—along with museums, theaters, and many other sites that can’t receive PPP loans—can now get up to a $10 million grant per institution.

Calvelli worked directly with the office of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer in crafting the language of the bill to make sure it would be as positive as possible for zoos and aquariums. 

“It was a roller coaster,” Calvelli said. “There was always some little thing that came up in the framing of the language that might have a negative impact—the email traffic was insane. Every day was great and every day was horrible.” 

Unfortunately, government-owned zoos and aquariums will receive little or no help through the law.  The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, in Cleveland, Ohio, which is publicly funded, may be able to receive some funding, but “the devil is in the details,” said Christopher Kuhar, the Zoo’s director.

“We’re still continuing to talk to state and federal representatives, but I don’t think we can rely on external support to get back to where we were in 2019,” said Kuhar. “We’ll have to try to find our own path forward.”

The Milwaukee County Zoo, in Milwaukee, Wis., got some help through the money the county received from the CARES Act and hopes the Shuttered Venue provision might provide additional help.

“Being government-owned was a mixed blessing,” said the Zoo’s Director, Chuck Wikenhauser. “We couldn’t get PPP loans, but the county was able to use its reserves to offset some of our losses.”

The passage of the second relief package does not signal the end of the work and the weekly Zoo Krewe phone calls continue. While hard times are far from over, the need to work with each other has proved priceless, as has the opportunity to shift the perception of what AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums do among elected officials.

On 11 March 2021, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act.  The law includes $30 million for the care of species in managed care listed under the Endangered Species Act, rescued and confiscated wildlife, and federal trust species in facilities experiencing lost revenues due to COVID-19.  This funding is a key priority for AZA and is the culmination of months of advocacy and outreach to Congress by AZA and its members.  The “American Rescue Plan Act” also included $350 billion for state, territorial, tribal, and local governments as well as significant additional funding for the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant Program and the Paycheck Protection Program.

“We strengthened our connections with each other and with members on the Hill,” said Humphries. “It was incredibly valuable not just to achieve federal relief but to develop champions for the vital roles we play in our communities.”

Flag waving in the air outside of the U.S. Capitol building

Alina Tugend is a writer based in Larchmont, N.Y.

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