Hector, the Patagonian mara, has a rare encounter with otters Benji, Hudson and Makita during a walkabout at the Fort Worth Zoo. Courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo.

April 14, 2020

On a recent sunny day, the parking lots at the Dallas and Fort Worth zoos were uncharacteristically empty as both parks hunker down, like much of the country, to ride out the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Kudos Zuberi and Ada at Dallas Zoo8-month-old kudu, Zuberi, and mom Ada, enjoy some family time at the Dallas Zoo. Courtesy of Dallas Zoo.

But a mandrill’s gotta eat. So employees have continued showing up to feed, exercise and care for the animals, clean their enclosures and make sure the zoos are presentable when they finally reopen. For those who can’t wait that long, each zoo has amplified its online presence with more photos, videos, chats and activities. At the same time, tight budgets and employee retention are emerging concerns.

“Staff is here every day feeding and caring for the animals and maintaining the park,” said Avery Elander, assistant director of Communications for the Fort Worth Zoo. “Keepers are continuing the day-to-day routines of the animals, cleaning exhibits, feeding and providing enrichment…continuing with training, exercises, etc.” 

A nutrition team still shows up to prepare and deliver daily meals for the zoo’s nearly 7,000 animals, and a veterinary group arrives every day to provide routine care.

Fort Worth zoo python takes a strollA Burmese python gets a hall pass at the Fort Worth Zoo, slinking along a walkway normally reserved for visitors. Courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo.

The Fort Worth Zoo closed its doors to the public on March 14, following the Dallas Zoo by one day. Reopening dates are not yet known. Despite the sudden halt in foot traffic, both organizations so far have been able to hang on to their employees – about 300 in Fort Worth and 350 in Dallas – although the Dallas Zoo was forced to furlough some part-timers.

“We are fortunate to have been able to retain and redeploy our full-time staff and quite a bit of our part-time staff so far during this incredibly uncertain time,” said Kari Streiber, senior director of Marketing and Communications for the Dallas Zoo. “We did make the difficult decision to furlough about 40 of our part-time visitor services staff, but we are hoping to extend offers to return to work to as many of that group as possible when we ramp back up when visitors return to the zoo.”

Meerkats on Easter at Dallas ZooMeerkats recently enjoyed their Easter basket filled with wood wool (which they love to dig and burrow in) and ostrich eggs filled with tasty worms. Courtesy of Dallas Zoo.

With major revenue from visitor entry fees shut off, both parks are under financial strain. Elander says the Fort Worth Zoo has been able to maintain operations without dipping into any contingency funds. The Dallas Zoo, meanwhile, has begun soliciting contributions to a new fund intended to hold things together until the lockdown lifts. 

“It's certainly been challenging having to close our gates, especially during what would typically be our busiest season of the year, so the continued support from our members and donors means more to us now than ever,” Streiber said. “We have created an Emergency Operations Fund and are asking folks to contribute to that fund to help us through this unprecedented time.” Donations can be made to help offset the $600,000-a-week cost to keep the Dallas Zoo running.

Zola the elephant at Dallas ZooIn the days before Covid-19, Zola, an African elephant, plods majestically through the Dallas Zoo's Giants of the Savanna habitat. Courtesy of Dallas Zoo.

The new reality of social distancing is being observed rigorously inside the gates of both zoos, for the benefit of staff and animals alike. 

“We instituted a revised staffing structure in mid-March for our essential onsite staff that created ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams to ensure we had distinct groups that did not cross paths. This would help us isolate a team if possible exposure occurred, while still having a complete team to deliver on our animals’ care and operating needs,” Streiber said. 

For staffers who work with mammals, Dallas has incorporated additional preventive measures, including mandatory use of personal protective equipment. The Fort Worth Zoo has enacted similar precautions. “In addition to the cleaning of frequently used and hard surfaces, staff is practicing social distancing, wearing gloves and masks, and staff that can work from home is working from home,” Elander said.

Empty Fort Worth Zoo parking lotEmpty parking lot at Fort Worth Zoo. Photo by Gracie Kent.

Some of the animals are finding a silver lining in the coronavirus cloud. With no visitors present, taking a chaperoned walk around the zoo is suddenly a thing. Keepers recently gave the Fort Worth Zoo’s 14-foot Burmese python a chance to “stretch his legs” and slither around the hinterlands of the Museum of Living Art exhibit, Elander said. In another part of the park, a Patagonian mara (think rabbit-deer-wallaby mash-up) named Hector took a recent stroll and stopped by the otter exhibit, sparking plenty of mutual curiosity. Such excursions provide physical exercise and stimulation for the animal, and give keepers an up-close look to assess the animal’s overall health.

For their quarantined fans sheltering in place, both zoos have the same message: We miss you and can’t wait to have you back. Until then, stay in touch virtually!

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