Arts & Entertainment Editor
When thinking about the coronavirus pandemic, we often just think about how it has affected our lives. However, zoos and aquariums around the world have also had to adjust to this new way of living. For the time that zoos and
aquariums were shut down, animals had to become accustomed to not having a constant stream of visitors. Chief Executive Officer of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Martín Zordan, said, “in a normal year, we estimate more than 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums worldwide.” With the number of visitors having to be limited or halted completely, how have animals adjusted?
In May 2020, the Sumida Aquarium in Tokyo, Japan asked people to FaceTime their garden eels. The population of around 300 spotted garden eels became shy after the aquarium closed in March 2020. They would burrow into the sand whenever staff members were around, so they came up with a plan to get the eels reacclimated with people. They had a three-day “face-showing festival,” where they asked people to wave or gently call out to the eels for up to five minutes.
The Kansas City Zoo arranged for their penguins to roam the halls of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in May 2020. A video was posted of the penguins with the caption saying, “Quarantine has caused everyone to go a little stir-crazy, even the residents of the Kansas City Zoo. So several of the penguins decided to go on a field trip to the Nelson-Atkins, which is still closed, to get a little culture.” The zoo’s Executive Director, Randy Wisthoff, said that the penguins have missed human interaction, so they planned outings to enrich their days.
Many other aquariums and zoos have let their animals roam around during the shutdown. In April 2020, the Rockhopper penguin Wellington wandered the exhibits of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Wellington had a cute encounter with a white beluga whale as they looked at each other curiously. At the same aquarium, the sea lions were allowed to wander into various office spaces. “They’ll walk around, eat some fish, interact with other care staff, and then head back to the exhibit area,” said Shedd Spokesperson Johnny Ford. The Denver and Oregon Zoos let their flamingos walk along the empty zoo grounds, and the Toronto Zoo took llamas and a donkey to say hi to the polar bears. While zoos and aquariums have found ways to enrich the lives of their animals during the shutdown, there’s no denying the struggles they faced.
“The amount of losses through the whole zoological community is staggering,” said the director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Steven Monfort. With the closure of zoos and aquariums came an insurmountable financial loss. They depend on tickets, merchandise, and food sales to keep their gates open. At Denver Zoo, visitors made up to 70 percent of the revenue; when the shutdown hit, they were in a $10 million deficit. Zoos and aquariums did not have the luxury of being able to work from home, as the animals still needed to be fed and cared for. However, this was a challenge, as the cost of feeding animals is high, and, with no steady revenue, zoos and aquariums had to cut where they could. The Oregon Zoo had to lay off a quarter of the zoo’s full-time staff and around 200 part-time workers. In December 2020, legislation was passed in Congress for COVID-19 relief funding, which included zoos and aquariums; if passed, there will be $15 billion in grants.
Currently, in California, zoos and aquariums are open with limited capacity. The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif. only has its outdoor area open. “Our outdoor areas are open with a reduced visitor capacity to allow for social distancing, and people need to visit with advance reservations and timed tickets. Numerous hand sanitizing stations are located throughout the Aquarium, and staff are constantly cleaning and sanitizing surfaces,” Aquarium of the Pacific Curator of Marine Mammals and Birds, Brett Long, told me. For the animals at the Aquarium of the Pacific, the staff always made sure to interact with them: “when developing their habitats, we work to ensure that they have appropriate social groups in their home. Animals, such as our California sea lions and sea otters, may notice fewer people on the other side of the window during our full closures, but they always have their regular enrichment and interaction sessions with staff.”
With zoos and aquariums slowly opening back up, animals can become re-accustomed to having constant human interaction again. While some animals may not have known about the shutdown (such as sea jellies and sea stars), some animals are eager to see people again. As Long told me, “we have seen that animals, such as our California sea lions, seem to be curious, and may decide to come up to the window to look at visitors.” So, if a sea lion comes to say hi to you at your next zoo or aquarium visit, be sure to say hi back!
Featured Image Courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific