It is a quiet spring at the Cameron Park Zoo.
There is still chatter among the gibbons at Gibbon Island, grunting from the rhinoceroses and elephants, rumblings and the occasional roar from lions and tigers, but silence from the largest contingent of animals that usually crowd the zoo at this time of year — the humans. Zookeepers are responding by building up a new online presence.
The zoo, with its 1,600 residents, has been closed to the public since March 13 as part of city restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus that has triggered a global pandemic and 199 deaths in Texas alone.
The shutdown hit during the zoo’s peak month for attendance, when school spring breaks, the annual Spring at the Silos at Magnolia Market and warming weather produce large crowds.
Last March, 57,253 people visited the zoo, part of the 328,066 people who visited Waco tourist stops and businesses as recorded by Convention and Visitors Bureau.
This March started strong, with 22,117 visitors during the first 12 days of the month, and zoo officials thought they might top last year’s March surge. Then came the city order shutting down the zoo and other places where the public might gather. Attendance flatlined at zero for March’s remaining 18 days, as did any income from the zoo’s gift shop and cafes.
City officials have not fully determined the impact in revenue, but last March contributed 16% of total attendance for the year, and the zoo remains closed.
The sudden stop to attendance cut short what promised to be a successful, possibly record-setting March, said Terri Cox, director of the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society.
“We would have had a bigger spring break than last year,” she said ruefully.
The zoo’s animals generally do not appear to have noticed the absence of humans, but a few things have changed.
Maharani the tiger does not get to race young children on the other side of the fence. Coyotes who normally shy from gawking crowds now are more active, chewing and digging places in their environment. And Cox notices ears and eyes perk up when she and zoo staffers walk past.
By and large, though, zoo life goes on.
“The animals don’t realize what’s going on,” animal curator Manda Butler said. “If anything, they’re seeing more diversity in their schedule.”
The zoo’s normal schedule is closely tied to its public viewing hours: Animals are awakened, fed and nudged into places where visitors can see them. With that side of the schedule put on hold, animal keepers are taking advantage of extra time for training and care.
Keepers work with elephants to get them to move to scales where their weight can be measured. Bears and a mountain lion are trained to move to areas where they can be kept in place for injections and other medical treatment. Orangutans become accustomed to blood pressure cuffs and cardiac monitoring equipment.
The training not only helps the zoo’s veterinary staff and animal keepers in their care of animals, but they provide an interaction that is important for zoo animals’ well-being.
“Keeping them engaged is important,” Butler said.
With no visitors coming to the zoo, the zoo’s workers and animals are trying to meet them online through the zoo’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter social media accounts.
Keepers show off their charges and explain how they are fed, trained or cared for in daily videos on Facebook. Regular features include Behind the Scenes, Story Time and Keeper Chats.
Starting at 9:30 a.m. Friday, the zoo will start weekly virtual field trips on Facebook Live, with the trips also appearing on the Hewitt Chamber of Commerce’s website and Facebook page. Friday’s tour will feature the zoo’s tigers with future trips involving elephants and rhinos, at 11 a.m. April 17; otters, mountain lion and bears, at 2 p.m. April 24; and stingrays at 9:30 a.m. May 1.
Zoo Director Chris Vanskike, who started on the job in November after 21 years with the San Antonio Zoo, said staffers have taken advantage of the public shutdown to repair walkways, replace asphalt and deep clean zoo restrooms and other facilities.
The social media interaction not only keeps the zoo and its animals in front of the public, it lets the zoo staff work on an important part of their mission: educating the public about the zoo’s inhabitants and their global environments.
“The keepers love it. Many of us got into this so we could share our knowledge and help preserve where these animals come from,” Butler said. “I’m really proud of the part we are doing to step up and add that (social media) content.”
The zoo society’s eight-person staff has kept busy, too, while working from their homes during the shelter-in-place order. Rather than train and care for zoo animals, the society has been contacting humans for financial help. A plea to donors last week netted about $44,000, and a broader mail campaign to zoo supporters will follow.
Closure or not, the zoo needs to continue caring for its animals. This year is an accreditation year, as well, and the zoo must keep the staff and programs needed to meet accreditation standards, Cox said.
“We have to maintain our staffing and keep our projects moving forward,” she said. “It’s a constant challenge.”
With the possibility of a closure lasting into May or longer, zoo officials are itching to get back to normal operations. Vanskike said with 52 acres, the zoo has space to allow social distancing once visitors return. The gift shop was also is stocked, thanks to spring break crowds that did not get to come, and the zoo’s cafes had been working on some menu changes, he said.
Though caring for animals is their primary charge, zoo keepers miss their humans, too.
“I’m not used to springtime being so quiet,” Butler said. “We’re looking forward to seeing people again.”
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