With the Kansas City Zoo, like other wildlife exhibits and education facilities around the country, closed during the pandemic, zoo staff have expanded their social media outreach to keep would-be patrons engaged.
In addition, with no human visitors walking around, some animals have been able to visit their zoo mates.
“A lot of zoos around the nation are doing this, since a lot of parents and kids are at home,” Randy Wisthoff, executive director/CEO of the Kansas City Zoo, said about social media outreach. “Almost twice a day, we’re posting videos and different camera shots, just to keep the zoo on everybody’s minds.”
On the zoo’s website, people can find short hands-on learning activities for young children that can be downloaded, videos of zoo staff with animals and live-feed “animal cams” from several exhibits.
Some zoo animals that might otherwise get to visit schools instead get to explore other areas of the zoo, and some animals get to explore outside their immediate confines.
“I know the keepers are taking some animals, mostly our ambassador animals, outside (their exhibits),” Wisthoff said. “It’s kind of silly, and we’ve let some of our penguins go for a walk within the penguin building, to see some of their relatives.”
The zoo’s Red River hog that is leash trained and the Polish chicken get to roam around to visit different animals, he said.
“They usually go out on programming visits, so it’s just reinforcing what they normally do – let’s just take them around the zoo. Other animals – some birds, snakes, bobcat, chinchilla – they roam around the building, out in the visitor area.”
While there’s no visitors, zoo staff can’t lighten their care of the approximately 1,700 animal residents. As a non-profit, the zoo relies on donations and its main fundraiser “Jazzoo” for a sizable portion of its budget. Jazzoo is normally the first weekend of June but has been rescheduled for late August amid the pandemic, and that event generally covers the facility’s food costs – about $600,000 annually – so the zoo has done a little social media solicitation for free will donations.
“It’s a pretty substantial grocery bill,” Wisthoff said.
Wisthoff and other senior zoo staff members work part of their week at home and part at the zoo, while the animal keepers and facility staff have been divided into two alternating operational groups. That not only enhances social distancing practices, but also mitigates potential staff shuffling without compromising animal care if an infection causes several people to do precautionary quarantine.
“Otherwise, I’d have to go back to my roots as an elephant keeper,” Wisthoff said jokingly, and fortunately animal keepers haven’t had that issue, he added.
After learning of a tiger in New York’s Bronx Zoo tested positive for the coronavirus – “Something the zoo world didn’t think was possible,” Wisthoff said – they’ve been treating every cat resident at the zoo as a creature that could possibly contract it.
“In those areas, staff is required to glove up and have breathing masks,” he said.
No zoo animals have been showing any signs of illness during the pandemic, zoo staff said. At this time, health officials have not found any evidence that animals, including pets and livestock, can spread COVID-19 infection to people.