When the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium reopened -- June 12 for members, then June 14 to the general public -- Nikki Smith, assistant curator of the zoo's North America region, noticed some interesting behavior from the resident lynx.

The big feline, which Smith described as "the consummate grumpy cat," was sitting front and center within its space -- where zoo visitors would be sure to spot it.

"It's as if it was saying, 'In case you forgot, I am fearsome,' " Smith said with a laugh. "You could tell we had animals that missed seeing all the people. For some animals, I think of us as a TV show for them."

The animals weren't the only ones happy to welcome visitors back to the zoo after a three-month shutdown in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

"Such a big part of our job is educating and talking to the public," Smith said. "It was wonderful to get to do that again."

Those who return to the zoo will find a number of changes designed to keep visitors safe and healthy.

Walkways have been marked with directional guides, additional barriers have been added to some glass enclosures and staff members have been directed to disinfect regularly throughout the day.

In addition, keeper talks -- daily sessions in which zookeepers share their knowledge of animals with visitors -- might look a little different.

"We're encouraging guests to keep separate and to keep moving ... as our keeper moves and talks, rather than standing and gathering," said zoo president and CEO Tom Stalf.

"Our mission is to lead and inspire by connecting people to wildlife," said Anthony Sabo, vice president of waterpark operations and guest services. "It's a new world with new challenges, but at the end of the day, that's still our mission."

The shutdown and reopening have been difficult across the board, Smith said.

"Zookeepers in general are constantly doing risk assessments, and we do a lot of disaster planning, which I actually find interesting, but we were still, as a group, not 100% prepared for this," she said. "There are pandemic response plans, but they're for when animals get diseases."

Sabo said a lot of hard work went into assuring visitors would have "a full zoo experience" after reopening -- work that will continue as public-health guidelines change.

"We continue to take our course from the state of Ohio and from the local health department," Sabo said. "We've game-planned steps for what changes might look like so we're able to make adjustments."

Stalf said he was an active participant in the state's reopening team, leading the group that was setting standards for ticketed events.

The admission process, he said, has been one of the most notable changes. Patrons now must purchase tickets online, and those tickets allow for entry at specific times in an effort to keep large groups from forming at the zoo's entrance and to accommodate social distancing while on zoo grounds.

"We're used to seeing tens of thousands of guests a day, but we are capped at 20% of capacity right now -- around five to six thousand," Stalf said.

Stalf said the cap is "financially devastating," adding the zoo anticipates a $32 million loss by the end of the calendar year.

But Sabo said he expects to see more nonmembers visiting the zoo as they begin to understand the new ticketing policy and, he hopes, notice good reviews from other visitors.

"We are getting compliments on how we're operating," he said. "The general feel from visitors is that they're excited to be out and doing things but still cognizant that they need to be safe and we need to be safe."

"The people who've come have had a really positive experience," Smith said, pointing to the zoo's new polar bear cub as a favorite among visitors.

Smith said keepers prepped the cub, who had never seen people in large numbers before the reopening, by having small groups of socially distanced staff members visit the enclosure.

"We didn't know how he was going to take it, but like polar bears cubs do, he was a great ham," Smith said. "In real life, I'm a boring person, but in my job, I can tell you a lot about baby polar bears, so I just hope to send people home with something that might inspire them."

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