North Carolina Zoo faces confused animals, fewer guests due to pandemic

North Carolina news

ASHEBORO, N.C. — So you think you’re having trouble getting used to mask-wearing? You’re not alone.

In fact, it’s a big challenge in a place you probably wouldn’t think it would: the North Carolina Zoo!

“Some of the animals were a little confused at first because the facial recognitions that they would look for from the keepers to encourage them and support them were missing,” the zoo’s executive director and CEO Pat Simmons told me. “So they had to learn right along with us.”

Learning is something that’s been in place since the zoo opened in 1974. Let’s just say it’s been ramped up a few notches since mid-March. That’s when the zoo shut down because of the pandemic.

“It was heartbreaking that the trajectory we were on got completely pulled out from under us,” Simmons said.

She’s talking about the fact the zoo set an attendance record in 2019: 917,309 visitors. Simmons was confident it would pass the one million mark in 2020. That’s not going to happen.

“Upon reflection I realize that now that we’re in the new normal, the measures we have to go by need to change.”

Many already have.

First of all, you have to protect the animals from COVID-19.

“There is proof cats, especially the big cats, have been able to catch COVID from humans,” Simmons said. “So what we’ve done as a precautionary measure is we wear masks in front of all the mammals now.”

Then there are finances. Attendance numbers, at least for a while,  won’t be a measure of success.

The zoo was able to reopen June 15 at limited capacity. Today, that capacity’s 3,000 people. On a good day pre-COVID, that number could be as high as 8,000 to 11,000 in the park at one time.

That means not as much money coming in.

Half of the zoo’s $20 million dollar budget comes from the work it does selling tickets, food, merchandise. Zoo society donations also support that “side” of the budget.

The other half comes from the state of North Carolina whose legislature and governor were struggling to pass a budget before the pandemic hit.

Since the shutdown, the zoo’s cut temporary staff, put off a few projects, and secured some money from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

It hasn’t had to furlough or lay off any of its 275-plus full-time staff—meaning the animals have been able to get the care they need.

“We probably can go until the spring of next year (2021),” Simmons said. “And I think we can sustain ourselves until that time in the spring. (After that) we’ll need to make some adjustments of some sort. Now, what will those adjustments look like? Well, we may be able to open the zoo to more guests.”

But until that point, Simmons says the zoo will push forward with what it does best while addressing what could be the biggest concern among visitors: is it safe to visit?

“I think it’s very safe,” she told me. “It think it’s safer than going to the grocery or your regular store.”

The big reason: just about everything’s outside.

Visitors also buy timed entry tickets on the zoo’s website before they arrive—which helps meet the capacity limit.

Mask-wearing for those 5-years-old and older is enforced along with social distancing.

Some experiences that traditionally allow people to cluster together are closed, including indoor habitats like the polar bear ice cave and outdoor adventures like the Zoofari shuttle bus.

But many others are open, including the aviary which limits capacity by allowing visitors in based on the number who walk out.

“We are here to support the citizens,” Simmons said. “We’re here for education. We’re here for conservation and great welfare for animals. We are always going to be doing that no matter what happens to us or against us.”

They’ll just be doing it—at least in the immediate future—wearing masks!

For more information on the North Carolina Zoo, including tickets along with what’s open and what’s not inside the park, click here: http://www.nczoo.org.

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