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As Zoos Cautiously Reopen, Humans Are Excited, Big Cats Seem Ambivalent

Photo caption:

Photo by Mehgan Murphy Smithsonian's National Zoo

The Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is reopening to the public on Friday. "We haven't seen the cats get superexcited about seeing people, but that's honestly to be expected," says curator Craig Saffoe. "Cats, whether they're your cats at home or giant cats like ours, are cats." Above, Luke, an African lion.

The pandas in D.C., the grizzlies in Oakland, the gorillas in the Bronx are all getting reacquainted with human visitors. As of a month and a half ago, the pandemic had forced 90% of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums' members to close. Today, the AZA reports, about 80% of them have reopened.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., opens its gates to the public for the first time in 19 weeks on Friday — and this week, I was one of the lucky few humans allowed in for a preview.

It was barely 8 a.m., and the lemurs were very chatty. Luke the lion was chuffing and pacing at the edge of his moat, while Damai, a Sumatran tiger, bellowed.

"That bellow we usually hear when the female tiger is cycling, when she's in estrus," says Craig Saffoe, curator of the National Zoo's Great Cats exhibit and Kids' Farm. "She's quite literally sending out a calling card to a male, letting him know where she is and that she's ready."

Saffoe is both excited and anxious about reopening.

"One of the things that I've missed most is interacting with people," he says. "A big part of our job is education and getting to chat to visitors and explain to them that this neat tiger that you just heard bellowing is critically endangered — and we're taking steps to try to help mitigate the potential for her extinction or her species' extinction."

In July 2017, Damai gave birth to a cub.

"We want people to come and learn and enjoy our animals, but we have to do it safely," says Saffoe.

That means drastically limiting the number of people allowed in each day. In normal, fully operational times, in the peak spring and summer seasons, the National Zoo can accommodate up to 25,000 people in a single day. When it reopens, it will cap attendance at 5,000 through timed entry tickets. Masks will be required for anyone age 6 or above. Indoor spaces will stay closed, and throughout the zoo, there will be hand sanitizer stations and signs reminding people to social distance.

The impact of the pandemic on zoos has been, "in a word, devastating," says Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

"I don't want to belittle the impact that the pandemic has had on businesses like restaurants or movie theaters," he says. "But zoos and aquariums can't just send their employees home and turn off the lights and secure the facility. The facility has to function at 100 percent to care for the animals that live there. So they continue to incur substantial costs day in and day out to keep the facility running."

As a result, Ashe says, many of them have "burned through their reserves" and have laid off nonessential staff.

In California, Oakland Zoo almost went bankrupt. "We had about three months of reserves remaining, so we had to notify the city of Oakland that we were running out of money," says Oakland Zoo's president, Dr. Joel Parrott.

But communities get attached to their zoos. After media reports that Oakland Zoo might close permanently, Parrott says it was inundated with donations, including a $500,000 gift from an anonymous donor.

When 6-year-old Andy Soulard found out the zoo might close, she donated her tooth fairy money and, with her mom, set up a fundraiser on Facebook. She promised she would make bracelets for anyone who pledged. Her mom, Kelly Soulard, set the goal at $200. To date, they've raised more than $215,000 for Oakland Zoo.

"We're getting donations from people all over the country," says Soulard. "People who have lived here previously and had fond memories, or they have grandkids that live here and they want to make sure that the zoo is still around for them, or people who just love animals and conservation."

Andy, whose favorite animals include "warthogs, guinea hogs, tigers and tortoises," had to rally help from her friends to keep up with the bracelets. Last week she made another donation to Oakland Zoo.

"I lost another big tooth. ... And I donated the other $5 that were under my pillow," she beams. Parrott calls her ability to turn $5 into $215,000 "a gift." "We've never seen anything like it," he says.

Oakland Zoo reopens July 29.

Back at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in D.C., Craig Saffoe says some of the animals he oversees did seem to miss seeing crowds of humans while they were closed to the public. Others, not so much.

"We haven't seen the cats get superexcited about seeing people, but that's honestly to be expected. Cats, whether they're your cats at home or giant cats like ours, are cats," he smiles.

For some animals — like the black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs born earlier this spring — the reopening will be their first experience of human crowds.

Saffoe is pretty confident that the farm animals — like donkeys and cows — missed all the pets they used to get from kids. But because of COVID-19, touching the farm animals won't be allowed when the National Zoo reopens.

Curators and keepers wants to keep all species safe.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


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