Luray Zoo needs help feeding nearly 200 animals during Coronavirus shutdown

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Luray Zoo-inside
Luray Zoo owner Mark Kilby feeds "Bella" a banana.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY — The alligators haven’t eaten since September. 

And that’s okay. The reptiles are currently still in brumation, which is a form of hibernation for reptiles and other cold-blooded animals. However, soon they’ll come out of their slumber and need a nice meal.

The biggest eater is no longer a resident. The former “star” of the Luray Zoo — a Bengal tiger named Star — passed away last July at the age of 16. The tiger consumed 15 to 20 pounds of meat a day.

The remaining residents of the local zoo don’t have such large appetites, but they still get hungry.

“The ones requiring the most feedings are the mammals,” local zoo owner Mark Kilby said earlier this week.

While a snake (Mark’s favorites – but don’t tell the others) may only eat once a week, the lemurs, porcupines and monkeys need fresh food daily.

“They consume a lot of fruits and vegetables,” Kilby said. “And those are perishables that won’t keep long.”

The Luray Zoo was first established in 1957 by Jim and Betty Martin. Kilby bought the local attraction in 1996 and transformed it into a rescue zoo. 

On March 25, Kilby closed the doors as a non-essential business under Order 53 issued by Governor Ralph Northam. The governor went a step further five days later and issued a Stay At Home order on March 30 to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

The zoo owner has posted on his website that the facility will be closed through April 23. Kilby posted that before Monday’s Stay At Home order, which is in effect until June 10.

With no school field trips, no spring break visitors and no tourists coming through the doors, the local zoo owner wonders how he will keep the animals fed through the long closure.

“We thought it was going to be one month,” Kilby said of the shutdown — and the $25,000 goal he set on the zoo’s GoFundMe campaign. “We wanted to keep it low because we didn’t want people to think we just wanted money.”

Operating the zoo and feeding its nearly 200 animals costs about $15,000 a month, according to Kilby. He knows that even if he reaches his fundraising goal, it may not be enough — especially if no admission fees are collected until the summer.

Currently, he is not rationing the animal’s food.

“Once the animals get used to their daily regiment, it’s very difficult to minimize or change that,” Kilby said.

The owner of the Luray Zoo noted that other zoos are suffering even more.

“We’re a relatively small facility,” he said. “I saw one [Virginia zoo] had a GoFundMe with a $100,000 goal… but they probably have 2,000 animals. We’ve got less than 200.”

While about half of the residents at the Luray Zoo are snakes, the 32 mammals housed there will be the most challenging to keep fed. They eat daily, along with the parrots. Condors and birds of prey eat every other day, while the turtles and tortoises get fed three or four times a week.

While some small business assistance may be available down the road from state or federal sources, that process will take time. The animals can’t wait on bureaucracy.

And now, with the zoo in a time of need, Kilby hopes that local residents remember his efforts over the years to help many in the community with wild animals, especially snakes, that may have made an unwelcome visit.

“For the past 23 years… since we took over here… I have never hesitated when I get a call to deal with snakes or a skunk or an injured animal,” Kilby said. “I try to use those opportunities to not only alleviate the situation for the humans, but to help the animals; and then educate the humans, so they can better understand the animals.”

The Luray Zoo plans to feature a series of videos on its Facebook page called “Zoo to You” during the closure. The frequency and format is still being worked out, but details will be forthcoming on the zoo’s website and Facebook page.

And while the video series is a nice, educational service for the community, it doesn’t put any money in the cash register.

On Wednesday, Kilby made a trip to Walmart to get fruit and vegetables for the animals. He spent $55. It will last a “couple of days.”

And there’s still a couple of months to go, at least.

“People know if they have a problem, I’ll be there and help,” Kilby said, “and now we need a little help.”

Those interested in contributing may see the GoFundMe campaign on the zoo’s website at lurayzoo.com. Payments may be made by credit card or PayPal, or you may send a donation by mail to: Luray Zoo, A Rescue Zoo, 1087 U.S. Highway 211 West, Luray, Va. 22835 

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