OAKLAND, Calif. — While animals in deserted national and state parks seem to thrive without the presence of people, many at the Oakland Zoo seemed downright bored without the crowds.
On Monday morning, a couple of mountain lions lazily lay in a hammock, while a couple of gibbons, Rainer and May, sang and called, before lying despondently in the tall branches of the Chinese elm that they call home.
Since March 17, the Oakland Zoo, a 100-acre wildlife park, has been closed to visitors — by order of state and local governments requiring the public to shelter in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to zookeepers, only bald eagles, and possibly wolves, seem to enjoy solitude.
“The eagles are using parts of the enclosure that we’ve never seen them use before,” said Joel Parrott, the zoo’s president and chief executive.
On Monday, a bald eagle that was resting in this new area near the pedestrian walkway retreated to hide under tree cover when a visitor approached.
All of the more than half a dozen zookeepers interviewed for this story said visitors provide some form of stimulus for most animals.
However, Leslie Storer – who was tossing food into the grizzly bear enclosure on Monday – also wondered if the animals rested more because they were more relaxed without the normal crowds.
“It’s hard to know what it is,” she said.
While the animals were allowed some downtime, caretakers, veterinary staff and administrators weren’t given the same luxury.
According to Parrott, it costs about $800,000 a year to feed the animals and $24 million a year to run the zoo. Finding that money, when attendance is at zero, is a daunting task.
Other zoos across the country face similar challenges. In Southern California, San Diego Zoo Global, which operates the San Diego Zoo and a sister facility, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, spent about $231 million in 2018 on animal care and operations. exposure. In 2018, the nonprofit reported revenue of $342 million, much of which will be wiped out, depending on how long the two zoos are closed.
In Oakland, the zoo qualified for an eight-week loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program. This allows the zoo to maintain a full-time team of animal keepers, vets and veterinary staff.
But that still leaves them short. To help cover some of the remaining shortfall, the zoo has launched a subscription-based Facebook feed, which gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at animals and staff.
On Monday, a zoo-based marketing team was filming an episode about goat hoof trimming at the children’s farm at the foot of the hill.
The goats seemed delighted to have people around, jogging to the fence as visitors approached and bawling until they were petted.
Erin Harrison, the zoo’s vice president of marketing and communications, said the show was attracting around 100 subscribers a day, with tiered pricing for members and non-members.
Although it helps somewhat, finding food has become a challenge.
Keepers rely on local landscaping and tree pruning services to “graze” elephants, giraffes and camels – tree branches, sticks and excess grass.
Staff now rely on individual donations from neighbours, and the stock is dwindling. This is especially true for giraffes which, unlike camels, are very picky about the food they will eat.
“There can’t be anything on it,” said Alyssa Watt, as she fed the unselective camels. “Giraffes won’t eat it if it has dust, ash or even the slightest trace of chemical odor in it.”
And she said washing the sheet doesn’t help. They will always reject it.
Most of the zoo’s animals are survivors – from circuses, private owners or, in the case of the animals in the California exhibit, found orphaned in the wild.
The four grizzlies, two sets of cubs, were found in Alaska. Their mothers were killed because they were “nuisance” bears.
And at the campus animal hospital, four parrots had been brought in the previous day – rescued from Wildlife Waystation, a wildlife sanctuary in Sylmar that ran out of money during the recent economic downturn.
The parrots sat quietly in some branches, their feathers puffed up, suggesting a level of stress and possibly underlying health issues, said Ilona Kovary, a caretaker at the hospital.
The birds will remain here for the next 30 days, quarantined from the rest of the zoo, and cared for until a new home can be found for them.
All animals brought to the zoo must be quarantined for 30 days, said Parrott, the zoo’s director and trained veterinarian.
The spread of disease is not a new concern for zoo staff. Still, they are taking extra precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially after news broke that a Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo was infected by a keeper.
All zookeepers wore masks on Monday.
And at the hospital, where a mountain lion cub was brought earlier this month, social distancing and quarantine measures have been tightened even further. A set of clean shoes is necessary if visitors come near his cage.
The animal, found in a tree in the Bakersfield area, weighed just 9 pounds when the zoo brought her.
She now weighs nearly 24 pounds, although feeding her isn’t easy: she’s extremely wary of people, and therefore cautious about eating while someone is watching.
She growled and hid under a wooden pallet on Monday as visitors tried to watch her during mealtime.
But as soon as they gave up and left, she rushed over and ate the food and milk that had been left for her.
Like bald eagles and possibly wolves, this little one seems happiest without people around.