The Toronto Zoo will be closed today after more than 400 employees walked off the job this morning.

On Wednesday, negotiations continued between the zoo and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1600 but the two sides were unable to reach a tentative contract by the midnight strike deadline.

Christine McKenzie, president of CUPE Local 1600, the union representing more than 400 Toronto Zoo workers, including zookeepers, horticulturists, tradespeople, and maintenance workers, said members did not want to take strike action today.

"We worked as hard as we could with the employer last night but at the end of the night, they weren’t willing to compromise on eliminating our job security so we had a firm stand with them. They were behaving like bullies," McKenzie told CP24 Thursday.

“We’re protecting the work that we do here at the zoo. The conservation, education and research work that we do relies on good, stable jobs and that’s what is best for our city and communities.”

Picket lines have been set up at the zoo’s entrances this morning.

The union said the animals will not be getting the level of care they should be getting while the workers are on strike.

"Our 5,000 plus animals that we have here are being cared (for) by a few managers that aren’t trained to do the work. Some of them used to be keepers but they haven’t done that work in a long time," McKenzie said, adding that several animals will be giving birth soon.

"We have a lot of very sensitive conservation programs that are ramping into gear, it being the spring, and we have our brand new hospital that’s opening in a week so there is a lot of things in jeopardy right now."

McKenzie added that the union is ready to quickly resume negotiations whenever the zoo wants to come back to the table.

"We know there are cost efficiencies to be had at the zoo but it’s with management, not off the backs of the people that are most important to making this institution run," she said.

Animals are 'number one priority,' zoo says

Speaking to CP24 Thursday morning, Toronto Zoo spokesperson Jennifer Tracey said the zoo is closed today to allow non-union staff to focus on caring for the animals.

“The zoo has initiated a robust contingency plan to ensure the health and welfare of our animals are the number one priority,” Tracey said.

“I can assure you they will be taken care of in every way by our highly qualified management staff, many of whom were former keepers themselves. So we have veterinarians, we have our curators. The animals will receive excellent care during the strike.”

Tracey said the proposals presented to the union did address job security and she added that the zoo was “taken aback” when the union took strike action this morning.

“The union’s demands were simply unaffordable and do not reflect the financial realities facing the zoo and other settlements that have been reached within the City of Toronto,” she added.

But McKenzie says the claim that job security was addressed in the zoo's offers is "unequivocally not true."

"Our job security language was still very much a no-go for them," she said. 

"As it stands right now, what they have proposed to us would mean that they could virtually shrink our workforce down to nothing if they wanted to." 

It is unclear when the zoo will reopen but Tracey said the zoo will be reaching out to school groups who had tours booked today to notify them of the strike.

The last time the zoo workers went on strike was in 1997. During that labour disruption, the zoo remained open.

Tory says city has to watch expenses

Speaking with reporters Thursday, Mayor John Tory said that it’s unfortunate the zoo is closed.

“The most important thing is that the animals are being well cared for, but I regret the fact that the zoo would be closed any day for a labour dispute or for any other reason,” Tory said.  

However he added that the city already provides the zoo with a “generous” annual subsidy of $11.6 million and said the city has “to be responsible in terms of how we look after the money of the citizens of Toronto.”

“These are excellent jobs that are well-paid with generous benefits, guaranteed pension and so on,” Tory said. “And so they’ll have to decide as time goes forward how that sorts itself out.”

Tory said he hopes the zoo will be open by the long weekend.