'I wanted to give up': Port Macquarie's Billabong Zoo back from the brink

A single lion needs about $250 worth of red meat per week.
A single lion needs about $250 worth of red meat per week.

You only have to look at Mark Stone to get some understanding of how hard this year has been.

The owner of Port Macquarie's Billabong Zoo admits he was almost left broken by the financial pressure of a bushfire season and the COVID-19 pandemic that has smashed the bottom line to pieces.

And he has every right to feel a little upset. Funding is yet to be released from a $100 million support package for zoos and aquariums across the country, announced by the Federal Government on April 28.

In fact, Mr Stone says he has only just received approval to lodge an application. It has almost been too late.

Eligible exhibiting zoos and aquariums have access to the grant that contributes towards up to six months of its animal welfare operating costs. This includes animal feed, enclosure, health and other specialised care expenses, and utilities directly related to the housing and caring for animals.

In addition to this support to help with operational costs, zoos and aquariums who meet the criteria could apply for the JobKeeper program to assist with staffing costs.

Mr Stone just shakes his head. His budgeting just to maintain the necessary care for his animals has been reviewed to the very last cent while he waits.

"We have received nothing since that Federal Government announcement. From what I understand there are 125 businesses who are eligible to put an application in. We are even unsure of how much we will even get," he said.

Federal Member for Lyne Dr David Gillespie with Mark Stone in April.

Federal Member for Lyne Dr David Gillespie with Mark Stone in April.

I got to a point where I wanted to give up.

Mark Stone

The zoo, which opened in Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid-North Coast in 1986, exhibits more than 80 species and cares for more than 220 animals - including cheetahs, snow leopards, spider monkeys and freshwater crocodiles.

Mark and his wife Danena, who have more than 40 years' experience in the industry, purchased the zoo as a breeding centre for koalas, together with a wallaby and kangaroo hand-feeding area. It is now one of the region's top tourist attractions.

"I got to a point where I wanted to give up," Mr Stone said. "I had massive bills. I didn't know how I was going pay them.

"I got to a point where I didn't even know where the end point was even going to be. But I had some really wonderful people supporting me."

Mr Stone struggles not be emotional when he says without the backing of the Port Macquarie-Hastings community, individuals who offered money, businesses like Kenny Little's and community groups who donated food, and calls of support from community leaders and friends, they would not have made it.

Billabong Zoo owner Mark Stone says he doubts he would have made it through without the total support of the Port Macquarie-Hastings community.

Billabong Zoo owner Mark Stone says he doubts he would have made it through without the total support of the Port Macquarie-Hastings community.

"That was enough to get my sorry arse out of the chair and pull myself out of this," Mr Stone said.

"That humbled me. I learned when people reach out and say they want to help, you have to accept it."

The zoo will re-open, under health restriction guidelines, on June 6.

Staff, who have been retained thanks to Jobkeeper, have been working hard to ensure the animals have been receiving the creative stimulation and behavioural enrichment they require.

"I'm looking forward to seeing how the animals react when we have people wandering around again," Mr Stone said.

"The animals react very much the same way a dog does when you've been at work all day and come home. I do have one cheetah who prefers his own space though - he's the kingpin at the moment."

Mr Stone said there is still a long way to go given the business took a massive hit at Christmas because of the fires.

"Once we get to Christmas this year it will be a sigh of relief and hopefully we have a really strong school holidays," he said.

Up until the June 6 opening, the zoo will be undergoing maintenance and upgrade works in time for the return of customers.

This story 'I wanted to give up': zoo comes back from the brink first appeared on Port Macquarie News.