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San Diego Zoo Copes During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Senior keeper Weston Popichak wears protective gear while caring for rhinos at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on Apr. 17, 2020.
Erik Anderson
Senior keeper Weston Popichak wears protective gear while caring for rhinos at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on Apr. 17, 2020.

Rhino keeper Weston Popichak reached his hand through a sturdy fence. He offered food and training to two rhinos in the Safari Park’s Rhino Rescue Center.

“Good girl, Vicky," Popichak said as he stroked the light tan skin. “Good boy, Edward.”

Popichak rubbed the dusty snouts of two southern white rhinos. And he came bearing treats.

“Good crunchies, good cookies,” he said in a soft, encouraging voice.

Mom Victoria and her strapping son, Edward, are part of a unique effort to save the southern white rhinos' cousin, the northern whites. There are only two left alive on the planet, and this pair of rhinos is playing a key role in the effort. Edward is the first southern white conceived by artificial insemination in North America.

RELATED: Frozen Skin Cells Could Create A New Future For Endangered Northern White Rhinos

“Edward enjoys his scratches," Popichak said as he vigorously stroked the animal’s forehead, ears and then his stomach.

“He likes his belly being scratched. Good boy. Good boy Edward,” Popichak said.

A mere 148 pounds when he was born last July, Edward is now a beefy 1,200 pounds. The scratches he welcomes might feel a little different these days. That is because Popichak wears plastic gloves and he offers encouragement and training through a face mask.

It is all part of the zoo’s COVID-19 protocols and Popichak does not think the rhinos even notice.

RELATED: New Rhino Born In San Diego Key To Research Effort

“They’re just hanging out with their buddies,” Popichak said. “They’re still going and rolling in the mud wallows and playing with all the enrichment we give them. Getting their regular training sessions. So, life is kind of as usual for them. It might be a little quieter.”

While the one-on-one time with the keeper is similar, there are not people gawking through or over a fence. The park has had no visitors since March 16. That means keepers are the only source of stimulation from humans.

“I think the interactions that we do see between the staff and the animals are pretty critical,” said Greg Peccie, the associate curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

COVID-19 has prompted the organization to stagger keeper’s schedules and the Zoo created smaller teams to manage the animals.

Team members have a foot in the worlds inside and outside the park.

“Life doesn’t shut down,” Peccie said. “There are things that still need to happen. We have people out there that are risking themselves everyday to take care of human life and to make sure we’re provided with, and quite honestly the animals, they need us. So we come in to take care of them.”

Keepers feed, clean and care for the animals just like they would if the park was still open to people.

But the sprawling Safari Park is off-limits to the public and it is a lot quieter than usual. Peccie is reminded every time he drives to work and does not see traffic.

“And we’ve even got some of the animals, in the morning they come running up and they’re looking around and they’re wondering where all the people are,” Peccie said. “There’s no point in these animals being here if we can’t share them with people. We really want to see the people come back.”

Edward (foreground) and mom Victoria at the Rhino Rescue Cent at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on Apr. 17, 2020.
Erik Anderson
Edward (foreground) and mom Victoria at the Rhino Rescue Cent at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on Apr. 17, 2020.

When that happens is not in the hands of the Zoo.

CEO and president Paul Baribault said the Zoo is already trying to figure out how that might work, but he said science will ultimately guide that decision.

“We’re really going to be following the advice of health professionals,” Baribault said. “City government guidance.This is going to an all community effort on how the community reopens and we’re going to be a part of that. And we’re looking at a number of options that would be the right ones for us but we’re really going to following county health advice guidelines.”

Being closed comes with a cost.

The Zoo's financial documents from 2018 indicate it cost about $220 million that year to care for the animals.

RELATED: Baby Rhino In San Diego Gains Weight, Offers Promise For Saving A Species

Visitation and merchandise accounted for $250 million in revenue that year.

The Zoo’s reserve fund helps, but it has limits and the financial pressure could impact the Zoo’s conservation work.

“The way that we approach our conservation work is that conservation work is largely through grants and independent fundraising efforts,” Baribault said. “As those fundraising efforts grow, we’re able to do more work on a shorter timeline. As those funding levels slow down, we have to stretch out those programs.”

The zoo engaged the local congressional delegation to lobby for COVID relief funding from the federal government.

Zoo officials also launched a fundraising effort to help to fill the funding gap and after several weeks they furloughed some of their workers.

The moves are designed to keep the organization functioning as the pandemic changes everyone’s lives.

San Diego Zoo Copes During The Coronavirus Pandemic
Listen to this story by Eric Anderson.