June 18, 2021

Bored, indifferent, lonely: Zoo animals sit out the pandemic

The way some of the animals peer out from their cages, it is almost as though they're looking around to see where all the visitors have gone.

Bored, indifferent, lonely: Zoo animals sit out the pandemic | dpa ...

Zoos around the world have been forced to close over the coronavirus pandemic, leaving some long-term residents scratching their heads at the lack of visitors. Others seem to have barely noticed the change.

At the Berlin Zoo in the German capital, the apes' entire world view has been shaken by the silence in front of their enclosures. "Some of the animals miss the visitors a bit," says spokeswoman Philine Hachmeister.

"The monkeys especially enjoy watching people" - as do the seals and parrots, for example, who are fascinated by the constant stream of visitors walking by their cages. "For them, it's all a bit boring now," Hachmeister says.

Rasem Baban, head of the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich, agrees. Many animals are showing heightened interest in interacting with their caretakers. Baban says that when he makes his daily rounds through the park these days, the animals look stunned to see him.

"They're excited when a visitor is there," he says, adding that it enriches their day. After all, at the end of the day, people and animals are really observing each other at the zoo, says Baban.

At the Berlin Zoo's bird sanctuary, caretakers have noticed that, without the distraction of visitors, the birds are much more engaged with one another.

And, given that it is spring, this might end up being a blessing. "Maybe after the coronavirus crisis it won't only be the zoos that see a big baby boom," Hachmeister says, with a wink.

Yet without visitors, finances are getting a bit tight.

"It can't really get any worse," says Baban. He is estimating losses of about 2.1 million dollars after having to close for five weeks at the start of spring, when zoos' high season begins. "You can't make that back up."

Besides the entry tickets, the leases for the restaurants are the zoo's second main source of income. But at the moment, there's neither.

Germany's zoo association is calling on the government to sign off on a 109-million-dollar aid package to help its 56 members. In a letter, association head Joerg Junhold made a plea for immediate financial help: "Unlike other facilities, we cannot simply shut down our business - our animals still need to be fed and taken care of."

Mirko Thiel, director of the biggest zoo in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, has a similar message. "Even in these times, the lions need their daily portion of meat, the tapirs their alfalfa hay, and each seal eats three to four kilograms of fish a day."

In addition to food costs, there's also energy costs to consider, he continues. "The animals in the reptile house also need to be kept at an average temperature of 21 degrees Celsius, so there's no possible ways to find a bit of extra savings in that area," says Thiel.

While the animals cannot have their hours cut or be sent on a forced vacation, their caretakers are a different story.

Many zoos are looking at ways to cut back on staff costs: "We're focused on saving, saving and saving," says Marcus Ruegamer, who's in charge of a zoo in the south-western German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Half of the zoo's animal keepers have had their hours cut back along with all of the food servers.

The zoo in Karlsruhe staggers its caretakers' schedules so that they start at different times and avoid meeting in the cantine. More than a dozen cashiers and ticket controllers have been reported to the city for other duties, says zoo director Matthias Reinschmidt.

Despite all the problems, however, Berlin's panda twins, which in normal times would be drawing in the crowds, are keeping spirits up.

"The panda twins are adorable," says Hachmeister. "Every time we think to ourselves [that] visitors should get to see this live. It would be a shame if we were to open again and the little cubs were all grown up."

The zoo has taken to the internet to give panda fans a glimpse of how the animals are faring in a bid to raise spirits outside its walls. One video, in which panda Paule zooms around his enclosure, is titled: "Paule runs - how are all of you staying fit?"