"I don't know if they just tickle his tummy or what, but he really likes doing that, and then he'll just sit there with his face on top of the water blowing bubbles,” says animal keeper Susan Burchardt.
Park experts say Denali isn’t alone in his serene approach to dealing with a pandemic. “Most of [the animals] are completely oblivious to this human drama swirling around them, and they're just enjoying the spring weather,” says Nancy Hawkes, Woodland Park Zoo’s director of animal care.
For the humans responsible for the largest collection of live animals in Washington state, the situation is more fraught. In her multidecade tenure across four zoos, Hawkes has dealt with her share of disasters: fires, animal diseases, tornadoes, earthquakes and even hurricanes. But most of those were pretty short-lived.
"I've never experienced anything that has affected us so deeply and gone on for so long," she says.
More than 1 million visitors wander the 120-year-old, 92-acre Woodland Park Zoo each year to appreciate about 900 animals representing more than 250 species. But on March 12, the zoo was the first in the nation to close its doors to the public because of the coronavirus. It’s since lost $6 million in revenues from ticket sales, events and beyond.
Unlike other cultural organizations forced to shut down, the zoo can't pause during a pandemic. Animals need food, medical attention and monitoring, and animal care experts need to be on the ground to facilitate it all. And just as humans react differently to the pandemic, animals bereft of visitors are changing their behavior in sometimes surprising ways.
With the pandemic threatening to close zoos worldwide, Woodland Park Zoo focuses on maintaining peak animal care until it can welcome back the public. As it reorganizes and creates contingency plans to keep its animals and staff safe and supplied, it's also finding ways to keep the community involved in its animals’ lives. In the process, its staff is discovering new sides to the animals under their watch, and learning how they can be a beacon of resilience in overwhelming times.
A shock to operations
About 200 of the zoo’s 361 employees are critical to onsite operations. Many were on animal care teams, which split into two groups working fewer days each week but for longer periods, limiting staff interactions. Managers developed contingency plans if up to 75% of staff were out with infection, Hawkes says.
So far, Hawkes says the zoo has been “very fortunate” in terms of human and animal exposure to coronavirus, the latter of which became a concern after seven big cats at the Bronx Zoo in New York became infected. Keepers have always worn protective gear when working with nonhuman primates, but they started wearing gloves and masks with cats, otters, meerkats, bats and other animals susceptible to other coronaviruses.
"We're socially distancing from them as well, as best we can, and it's not something I ever pictured having to deal with, but that is our reality right now,” says Burchardt, one of the animal keepers.
She normally works almost exclusively with birds, but now she primarily watches over bears, otters and goats. Colleague Joanna Klass has added red pandas, pudus, wolves and western pond turtles to her responsibilities of caring for more than 100 waterfowl, including 38 flamingos. "It's given us a chance to really see other parts of the zoo,” she says, “and share our animals with our coworkers.”
The changes come with challenges, but Burchardt admits the quiet, empty zoo still offers rewarding experiences. She misses getting to share animals with the public, but when she walks into the Australian bird aviary with seed sticks twice a week, birds accustomed to frequent human interaction now descend on her immediately, which she says is “kind of magical.” With horticulture teams still maintaining lawns and gardens, she tries to enjoy the zoo’s natural beauty and often takes her lunches outside. "If no one else can, at least you can," she says.
Klass says the keepers’ relationships with animals have always been important to them, but the absence of normal human interactions makes them more so. “They’re not human relationships, [but] they’re still important,” she says.
Focusing on animals is also grounding in the midst of external chaos, Klass says. “I just know what I have to do for the animals here,” she says. “They’ve been a constant and it’s been nice to have that every day.”
The animal experience
Meanwhile, most animal lives continue as usual: They give birth, fight, play, escape and sleep, as they would any other spring. Since March 12, there have been 27 animal births and 25 deaths — most of which were bird hatchlings that did or did not survive, common for birds each spring, says Farrah Paul, the zoo’s director of public relations and community affairs.
In her expanded role, Burchardt was present for a mountain goat birth. "We weren't 100% sure she was pregnant because mountain goats are giant and fluffy and fuzzy,” she says. “And then, poof, there was a baby the next morning."
Staff perform an average of five medical procedures a day. When new baby gorilla Kitoko was injured in a family skirmish, a team from Seattle Children’s hospital arrived within hours to help the zoo’s vets with surgery. "The community coming together and everybody pitching in and focusing completely on what's most important, which is the health and welfare of this baby ... it's just amazing,” Hawkes says.
Keepers have more time to experiment with animal engagement activities that they might not explore with visitors around — new puzzles and feeding methods, for instance. "The animals are telling us things that we might not have had time to notice before,” Hawkes says.
Ambassador animals have visited some of their neighbors at the zoo: potbellied pigs visiting otters, armadillos visiting gorillas and porcupines visiting penguins. "It's arguably more stimulating [for the animals] than being around people," CFO Michele Smith says.
Animal welfare scientist Dr. Bonnie Baird is taking advantage of a closed zoo and planned phased reentry to scientifically gauge exactly how visitors’ presence impact animals, in the hopes of better managing that dynamic in the future.
Much has been said of animals “missing” guests, but Baird says, so far, welfare has been highly individual. While animals like grizzlies are able to entertain themselves, animals like great apes, gorillas, farm animals and giraffes seek out interaction with humans. Penguin swimming patterns have even changed, staff say.
When Baird walks by herself at the zoo, many animals have been “very, very focused on [her],” she says. They run up and approach or try to solicit interactions, which didn’t happen a lot before — especially not with some animals like the new warthogs. When Baird approaches their habitat, they barrel across the yard just to look at her. “It’s kind of a special moment to me, as an animal nerd and a scientist. These animals really do notice us, they’re not as passive as we think they are,” she says.
The zoo is searching for ways to provide social animals with as much as attention as possible, but "there's nothing that really matches that level of interaction" that visitors provide, Burchardt says. Her manager sometimes does his paperwork in front of animal exhibits to provide interaction and stimulation. "But it is a gap that we don't 100% have the capability to fill." she says.
Bringing the zoo to the public
During the pandemic, communications and engagement teams have dialed up their efforts to give Seattle remote access to moments that usually bring public fanfare in person.
When they uploaded a video of new gorilla mother Uzumma cradling and patting her baby, Kitoko, 700,000 people watched and 15,000 shared on Facebook alone. "There was one comment from someone who said, ‘I wish I felt as safe as that little baby does right now.' And it was really eye opening to both recognize all at once just how critical this need is for people to feel some sense of security and connection in this really scary time,"says Rebecca Whitham, vice president of engagement. “We are a place where people feel safe.”
Zoo fans are joining in on the sharing. When viewers stream Super Snack Time — a livestream where animals eat onscreen at 2 p.m. Tuesdays — Whitham says viewers regularly share what they're eating, too.
They're also finding ways to reach children when many are home schooling for the first time. The zoo is producing virtual field trips to air on the Seattle Public School District basic cable channel and by free online livestream.
But zoo resources are increasingly being stretched thin. The zoo covered payroll and benefits for all staff through June 30 through the Paycheck Protection Program. But on May 29, it announced that effective July 6, it would be laying off 27 people and temporarily furloughing 43 others, while employing temporary 10% pay cuts for staff making more than $100,000 in response to lost revenue from pandemic closure. This impacts 23% of zoo staff, and comes on top of previous employee pay cuts in May.
To offset this, the zoo is getting creative. A paid program offers businesses the opportunity to invite ambassador animals to videoconference meetings. The weeks-old program, which has two 15-minute sessions a day for $260 each, is booked through at least the first week of June. "This is people saying, ‘My next meeting needs to have an Arctic fox in it if I'm gonna get through this week,' " Whitham says.
The zoo also launched a relief fund in mid-March, and many volunteers have set up crowdfunding links on Facebook (one boy raised $500 while cutting his hair live on his mom’s Facebook page). To date, the zoo has raised $831,996, from 2,943 donors — enough for the zoo to feed all of its animals for six months and pay 12 animal keepers for three months. The outpouring barely dents the zoo’s $6 million in revenue losses, but it’s more substantial than any previous emergency effort, VP of Development Sarah Valentine says — and 1,600 of those donors contributed for the first time.
But the staff hopes to have visitors back well before the worst happens. "It does sound like we will be able to start reopening sometime [in June]," Hawkes says.
When that occurs, she acknowledges the zoo can’t operate as before. Hawkes says she’s been in conversations to form protocols for protecting big cats and primates from exposure to more people. They’ve identified places in the zoo with higher risks for air exchange, and rerouted them.
But many employees at the Woodland Park Zoo see their finned, furred and scaled charges as models for how we might overcome this crisis.
“They're not as fragile as we think we are,” Baird says. “Just like humans aren't maybe as fragile as we all think we are.”
Update: This article was updated at 3:33 p.m. on June 3 to reflect that Joanna Klass cares for more than 100 waterfowl, including 38 flamingos; as opposed to more than 100 flamingos.