JAVMA News logo

June 01, 2020

Zoos, aquariums keep animals engaged during closures

Published on May 13, 2020

Zoos and aquariums across the U.S. have closed their doors to follow physical-distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 outbreak, so the animals inside these facilities are going online instead.

Carmen and Kayavak
Carmen the penguin interacts with Kayavak the beluga whale at the Shedd Aquarium. (Courtesy of Shedd Aquarium)

“Some of the animals are developing a celebrity base,” said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president of animal health at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

He referred specifically to Wellington, a 32-year-old penguin, who has been caught on camera exploring other exhibits during the aquarium’s closure. Videos and photos by caretakers and veterinarians still working on-site are being posted to the aquarium’s social media channels.

The Shedd Aquarium closed its doors to the public on March 13, and the situation has brought about unique opportunities for enrichment for the animals, including when caretakers take penguins to other areas of the facility.

But the Shedd Aquarium and its penguins aren’t alone in their social media adventures. Dr. Robert Hilsenroth, executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, said zoos are adapting and being inventive.

“We can’t take the batteries out of the animal at zoos and put them on hold, so zoos are being quite inventive about finding things for animals to do,” he said.

Zoo Miami has a livestream of its meerkat exhibit. The zoo has also started Zoocademy. The program includes educational videos about the animals and activities at the zoo.

Ron Magill, communications director at Zoo Miami and the person behind Zoocademy, has been working at the zoo for 40 years. He said this is a surreal time.

“Short of going through natural disasters such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992, this is the only time the zoo has been closed for an extended period of time,” he said. “The big difference now is that everything looks beautiful and pristine. The weather is gorgeous, and the animals look totally relaxed.”

Dr. Darin Collins, director of the animal health program at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, has been at the zoo for 20 years and said it has never experienced a closure like this, either. He said staff members are using online platforms to keep the public informed.

“Social media is allowing us to reach a huge audience that we usually wouldn’t, and they keep coming back to stay updated,” Dr. Collins said. “Social media has been an interesting way for people to get behind the scenes.”

He said Woodland Park Zoo will eventually open again, but it likely will be different and could offer more online content for the safety of the animals, the public, and zookeepers.

“We are having conversations about what it might look like,” Dr. Collins said. “Maybe that might be limits on the number of people that can be in the zoo, and maybe we don’t let people inside enclosures.”

For many zoo veterinarians and caretakers, it is business as usual despite the lack of visitors, although most elective procedures are on hold as well as any animal transfers or shipments. Zoos also have updated their procedures related to several species after tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

“As a niche of veterinary medicine, zoo veterinarians feel privileged and grateful that we are in this position and still considered essential,” Dr. Hilsenroth said. “We feel lucky to help out when we can.”

 

An online photo gallery offers additional images of animal and human adventures during the COVID-19 closures at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and Zoo Miami.