Caring for animals is essential work – stay-at-home order or not.
So although Columbus Zoo and Aquarium president and CEO Tom Stalf "can't wait until we can open and share these animals again with our guests," the care and safety of the 10,000 animals that call the zoo home is ongoing – even as steps are taken to help assure the health and safety of zoo employees.
"Our top priorities are staff safety, animal welfare and care for the community, and we're doing all three of those every day," Stalf said.
Although the way those goals are achieved necessarily has changed, given measures taken to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in many respects, life goes on as normal for zoo animals and their keepers.
"Springtime is a busy time for us, particularly in North America," said Ashley Wright, head keeper for the North American region of the zoo. "Animals are in seasonal transition.
"Black bears and brown bears have been coming out of their seasonal torpor, for example. We're helping animals transition from winter diet to spring diet. We're preparing habitats: getting pools that have been closed for winter cleaned and filled, raking leaves, maintaining our growing plants."
"We're keeping our animals' routines normal and our keepers' routines, as well," said Adam Felts, curator of the zoo's Heart of Africa and Asia Quest regions. "We're introducing animals into the savanna. Animals are getting enrichment daily. But that enrichment is not an option; it's part of our regular standards. Those activities were already planned and scheduled."
Enrichment activities, Felts said, include daily walks and yoga (yes, really) for elephants, training in recall sounds for animals who don't overnight on the savanna and reinforcement of behaviors that allow animals to help with their care.
"We're working to promote species' appropriate behaviors," he said. "Sometimes (visitors) see that and sometimes they don't."
"Keeping what we're doing consistent every day, from offering enrichment and maintaining behaviors, helps both the animals and us," Wright said. "We don't want what's happening in the world to affect their day-to-day lives."
The lack of visitors impacts different animals in different ways, both Wright and Felts said.
The savanna is so large, Felts said, that some animals might not notice guests even on a typical day when the zoo is open. On the other hand, more social species might realize something's changed.
"I don't want to put human emotions onto animals, but the elephants (in Asia Quest), you get the sense they can feel something's up," Felts said. "And the sloth bear loves people."
"Especially in the My Barn (petting zoo), the goats and sheep look forward to springtime when the zoo is busy and they get that engagement, the feedings and the rubs from people," Wright said. "We're trying to fill that for them as we can."
Felts said the giraffes might not show that they're missing the public feedings, but they "are wondering why we're wearing masks."
"Giraffes notice any slight change in their environment," he said. "You'll see them just stare off into space and zone out."
The masks are part of new health and safety guidelines in light of the coronavirus. Staff members also have been divided into groups of two to four people, with specific assignments that do not overlap, in order to keep them safe and ensure ongoing care for all animals, Stalf said.
All employees must have their temperatures taken at the start of each shift. Keepers who work with primates or in nutrition always wear gloves, and the entire staff is working to keep surfaces extra clean and disinfected.
Zoo spokeswoman Jen Fields said employees have been using masks, social distancing and other protocols to avoid potential transmission of the virus from humans to animals.
The precautions are based on the case of cats at the Bronx Zoo that recently tested positive for the coronavirus; all of them have displayed only mild symptoms and are expected to recover.
"While this virus could potentially be found to spread to other mammal species, as well, we are taking precautions to help prevent that from happening," Fields said. "While it may be very unlikely that it will transfer to birds or reptiles, we are being careful with those species, as well."
Stalf said daily briefings help leaders make sure that needed supplies are available and keep staffers that don't work directly with animals up to speed on any repair or maintenance needs.
At the start of the restrictions, some food and beverage staff members were made available to augment teams to support the work of the keepers, Felts said.
"Having those extra dedicated hands when our people can't overlap to help with extra cleanings and other needs has been important as we work to keep ourselves whole," he said. "Elephants make a lot of poop."
Keeping the entire zoo community whole, including the public, has been a goal of the zoo's communications and education teams, Stalf said.
"We're working so hard on social media, for example, right now, so that our community can continue to learn about and be inspired by these animals," he said.
About 42,000 voted in an online poll to name the zoo's new polar bear cub – Kulu was the winning name – and although that effort might not have changed with the zoo being closed, the public's ability to meet such zoo newcomers obviously has.
"He's very cute and growing very quickly," Wright said. "We're babyproofing his habitat and collecting data and recording observations, but we really want to be able to share him with guests in person."
"The zoo is such a vital place in the community, bringing in well over 2 million guests each year to encounter these wonderful animals," Stalf said.
The lack of visitors not only impacts staff and animals, but also the zoo's financial picture, he said.
"The majority of our revenue comes from admission," Stalf said. "Between the zoo, (Zoombezi Bay) water park, the Wilds and (Safari Golf) course, that exceeds $100 million.
"We're looking at budgets and spending appropriately to where we can save every dollar we can," Stalf said, including not bringing on seasonal employees, an effort that typically is underway at this time of year.
The zoo took another step toward its financial security April 27 by furloughing 29 full- and part-time employees and eliminating 33 positions unrelated to animal care across the zoo and the Wilds in Cumberland.
The employees whose positions were eliminated will receive severance pay, and furloughed employees will continue to receive benefits, according to a news release.
“The zoo has been closed since March 16 due to this global pandemic, and while we are confident that we’ll reopen sometime this summer, we cannot predict when,” Stalf said.
“With this uncertainty and budget pressures, we must take steps to be fiscally responsible and protect the long-term future of our institution,” he said.
"This is the hardest thing I’ve had to do as CEO. Our employees are some of the most dedicated and passionate people in the world’s zoo community.”
Stalf said reopening will be a difficult process, but he and his staff are prepared.
“It will be tough to ramp back up, but I know we will be ready when we get the go-ahead from our state government,” he said.