Zoos Flex Creativity During Pandemic Closures

Hippos at the San Diego Zoo. (Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo)

(CN) — Since zoos across the country shuttered their doors to visitors to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, they’ve tapped their creativity to keep supporters engaged and money flowing. The result? Animal live-web cam shows have gone viral and drive-through zoo car tours have sold out.

US Zoo Leader Closed Longer than Expected

When the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park closed its doors March 16, zoo curator Rick Schwartz said they thought it would be closed for a couple weeks.

But the zoo has not yet reopened as California moves through Governor Gavin Newsom’s second stage of his reopening plan. It will likely reopen before the end of the month after the state released its guidelines for the reopening of museums, galleries, zoos and aquariums starting June 12.

While the San Diego Zoo was able to initially pay all employees for four weeks, Schwartz said they eventually furloughed some staff not involved in animal care, including ticket takers and food service workers.

For those who still reported to work, they were divided into two teams which never crossed paths to minimize potential exposure to Covid-19 for both animal caretakers and the staff.

Since primates, swine, carnivores and bats can contract coronavirus from humans – though the reaction in their bodies is different than the impact on people – Schwartz said workers are wearing personal protective equipment when caring for the animals.

Because primates can catch colds and other viruses from humans, those staff have worn face shields, masks and gowns when caring for those animals for years, Schwartz said.

They have since extended those bio-safety measures to protect other animals that could get coronavirus, which Schwartz said could last upwards of six months.

“Given my past experiences of dealing with biohazards, we maintain security when the threat is there and no longer do it if it’s not necessary to avoid wasting products and gloves,” said Schwartz, who has been in animal care for 27 years.

While the animals still get some interaction with their caretakers, Schwartz said they noticed “an immediate reaction” from the orangutans and gorillas who “always seem to enjoy watching people” when visitors are at the zoo.

Zoo Animals Going ‘Viral’ During Pandemic

To keep San Diego Zoo passholder members and guests engaged, the zoo has doubled-down on its live webcams and virtual tours.

Schwartz said pre-coronavirus, the zoo had popular gorilla and giraffe webcams, but have since added hippo and platypus webcams as well.

And animal fans are watching. The zoo has seen a 500% increase in webcam usage since the park closure.

Wildlife care specialist Matt Gelvin feeds a rhino at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on March 25. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Spratt, San Diego Zoo)

“It’s an opportunity to relax and escape the situation, a retreat for people stuck at home,” Schwartz said.

“We have had the tools in place but are really relying on them as the only resort to feel connected to the zoo and safari park,” Schwartz added.

Dan Ashe, CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a 240-member industry accreditation nonprofit of which the San Diego Zoo is one of its most prominent members, said 93% of its members closed during the height of the pandemic.

Ashe said many of the zoos are in the same situation as San Diego, where they’ve been closed since mid-to-late March and their revenue stream has dried up.

And while many zoos have followed San Diego’s lead by engaging members online, they generally aren’t making any money through virtual safaris or webcams.

“Kids are watching online safaris and following penguins at the Shedd Aquarium, but they don’t make revenue from that. It keeps them in touch with visitors, but it doesn’t drive revenue for them,” Ashe said.

Some zoos have been able to raise money through innovative ways, Ashe said, with the San Antonio Zoo implementing the first drive-through zoo, which sold out right away, prompting the zoo to extend the car tours.

The Phoenix Zoo copied the drive-through zoo, as did the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Members are crowdsourcing information on reopening plans or innovations during their closures through webinars facilitated by the association, Ashe said.

The Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah, the second zoo to reopen during the pandemic, found they needed to cease doing “animal enrichment” with trainers out in the open because it attracts a crowd not in line with social distancing guidelines, Ashe said.

And while each zoo “is an experiment to reopen in different ways,” Ashe said zoos and aquariums are learning new ways of operating, such as more efficient crowd control, due to the pandemic closures.

“We will learn something about business interruption, which used to be thought about in terms of natural disasters and business interruption of days to weeks. This has been months,” Ashe said.

“We will learn a lot about how to survive business interruption on a longer scale. Hopefully, we won’t have to use it again,” he added.

Ashe said he doesn’t believe any of the association’s members will permanently close due to financial losses sustained during the pandemic. To be accredited, the association looks at a zoo or aquarium’s financial structure and that they can “maintain the same level of performance day in and day out.”

“I think our members are going to be able to get through a period of three to six months, although six months is extreme,” Ashe said.

“Through June and July our members will undoubtedly survive. If [the closures] go through July, August, September, that will put severe financial strain,” he added.

Zoos Finding Success After Reopening

While cities and states work to safely reopen absent a Covid-19 vaccine, zoos are also adjusting operations to let visitors back on their grounds.

A spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums said as of Monday 78 of its 240 members are open in some capacity, with limited walking access, drive-through tours and a few that are fully open without restrictions.

Orangutans at the San Diego Zoo. (Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo)

Another 29 of the association’s members have also announced reopening dates, though the San Diego Zoo is not one of them.

As more zoos reopen for summer visitors, they may take a page out of ZooMontana’s book, the first zoo to reopen after closing during the pandemic.

Executive director Jeff Ewelt said closing the zoo March 21 “was a terrifying decision” as the small zoo in Billings, Montana is open every day of the year, doesn’t receive any state or local dollars and is entirely privately owned and operated.

Ewelt said they decided to close the zoo before state guidance was issued in Montana to shut down businesses to curb the spread of Covid-19. They shut down after they were the first association member whose Paycheck Protection Program loan was approved by a small local bank.

ZooMontana remained closed for 1 ½ months, reopening for members on May 4 and for all visitors May 11.

Ewelt said the zoo opened with less than 10% capacity limited to 500 people to enforce social distancing protocols before increasing its capacity to 750 people.

The zoo’s giftshop and indoor animal collection also reopened a couple weeks after the zoo welcomed visitors.

Ewelt said since reopening, the zoo has had some of the “best weeks we’ve ever had” with the number of visitors exceeding its typical summer admission of 500 people a day.

But even though attendance figures are up at ZooMontana, Ewelt said the zoo stands to lose about $250,000 to $300,000 from canceling its summer events, including their fundraiser gala which brings in needed revenue to sustain the zoo when attendance slows down during the winter.

Based on the first few weeks ZooMontana was open, however, Ewelt said he expects zoos to find success after reopening as local visitors opt for “staycations” rather than summer vacations that cross state or international borders.

“We feel safe about it — we are a community player and want to ensure we are doing things that make people feel safe and that’s the feedback we are getting from folks coming through,” Ewelt said.

“Our guests are excited to be outside and excited to have something to do with the family. I think zoo attendance when they reopen will go up,” he added.

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