COVID-19 and zoos: Why Sydney's Taronga zoo animals miss humans during lockdowns

If only we could walk with the animals, talk with the animals, grunt, squeak, squawk with the animals. Well, at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, throughout this interminable lockdown, there's at least been the odd outbreak of squawking with the animals.

In the stark absence of daily human visitors, PA system announcements by zoo staff have been crackling across the 28-hectare harbourside site as a means of maintaining a daily regimen for Taronga's original creatures of habit.

The objective is to present, as far as possible, a business-as-usual atmosphere at the zoo so that the animals don't suffer stress, which could lead to other issues, and also to ensure that they retain their fitness.

Despite our dumb human propensities, it seems zoo animals may well miss us when we're not around. Pre-lockdown, Taronga's usual attendances fluctuated from less than 1000 guests on rainy days to more than 10,000 over the course of sunny Saturdays or Sundays. Now the animals need to be content with seeing staff only.

"A day-to-day routine is essential for the animals," explains Cameron Kerr, chief executive of Taronga, "and, yes, this does mean the occasional PA announcement. While it might seem amusing to make announcements to a largely empty zoo, it does help us ensure we're providing a consistent environment for the animals in our care."

Taronga is home to more than 4000 animals across 350 species, and all have learned to live with the odd "dad joke" over the PA by zoo staff and are accustomed to the daily procession of visitors.

"Many of our animals, like chimpanzees and giraffes, have a good view of the visitors and would be engaged by their movement and chatter on a daily basis," Kerr says. "What we're learning - or confirming - during these lockdowns is that the animals spend a lot of time watching the visitors, just as visitors watch them. And that changes to the visitor [numbers] are noticed by our animals."

Even some of the animals that the zoo expected would be less likely to notice the drop-off in visitors, such as frogs, also appear to have registered the lockdown. They are apparently less likely to reveal themselves without lots of people around.

During Taronga's temporary, though indefinite, closure to the public, keepers are providing the animals with "daily enrichment to stimulate mental and physical activity" including training for the seals and birds for their popular daily displays which, during normal times, can attract hundreds of spectators.

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Keepers usually conduct one or two training sessions per day with the zoo's show birds and as many as two to five with the seals. The now empty grandstands feeling a little like the equivalent of the fans-free Tokyo Olympics.

"While the animals would certainly notice the lack of audience - and it's hard not to - we do know that many of our animals find their daily interactions with the public enriching, and the energy level that the audience provides is certainly missed by keepers," says Kerr.

While many members of the zoo's menagerie are now off limits to the public in the flesh, they have still been enjoying considerable small-screen exposure.

As well as several "live cams" focused on enclosures, they have starred on Taronga's special live streaming home-schooling educational sessions, designed especially for the lockdown, with more than 80,000 households tuning in.

Even with the pandemic-induced disruptions and the resulting decline in revenue, Kerr says Taronga has fared well compared to counterpart zoos in the northern hemisphere which have suffered long closure periods with a much greater impact on staff due to the more pervasive effects of COVID-19.

While it is plausible that animals in Taronga's care could be exposed to COVID-19, strict biosecurity measures in place at the zoo render any such occurrence unlikely.

Zoos in the northern parts of Australia have struggled due to the absence of international tourists while in Sydney, the local community has responded well to the NSW government's "Dine and Discover" initiative which had seen "a fantastic boost" in attendances before the latest lockdown.

In contrast to its harbourside counterpart, Taronga's 300-hectare Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo, a five-hour drive from Sydney (that is, if we were allowed to drive there) has enjoyed some of its highest visitor numbers over the past year. Now that's at least something to squawk about during the lockdown.

A LOCKDOWN DAY IN LIFE OF A SEAL KEEPER

6:15am: Arrive at Taronga Zoo

6:30am: Shift starts with food preparation which includes preparing 100 kilograms of fish for 14 seals, 39 penguins and two pelicans

7:40am: Virtual team meeting

8am: Morning clean of exhibits, pools and training areas

9am: First training session including feeds, daily health checks and enrichment

10am: Socially distanced morning tea

10:15am: Second training session of the day to coincide with what would normally be the first presentation of the day. Lockdown has provided an opportunity to condition some younger seals with new behaviours and skills

12pm: Socially distanced lunch

12:45pm: Third training sessions for the day and animal moves to allow different seals to socialise with one another. Our socialisation schedule allows the animals to interact with different individuals and is an important part of their enrichment.

3pm: Pack down, final cleans and paperwork including record keeping.

4pm: That's a wrap!

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