A Czech zoo, Safari Park Dvůr Králové, has been closed since December 2020 as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, and inside there are more idle minds desperate for entertainment than just the keepers. Chimpanzees belong to one of the most intelligent species on Earth, and without visitors to participate in what’s almost a two-way exhibit the zoo's resident chimps are growing restless.
To tackle the lull in enrichment, staff at the zoo decided to take the unconventional step to connect their chimps to other captive individuals elsewhere in the country in the same way most people have kept in touch during the pandemic: via video call. The project hopes to provide further stimulus for the animals alongside their normal routines meant to keep the animals busy, whilst hopefully avoiding the Zoom Fatigue we're feeling.
Garden eels and meerkats have also been highlighted by other zoos as being among the animals most negatively impacted by the halt in visitors (some zoos got very creative to try and spice things up). It’s possible the curious animals have grown used to watching passing observers; a recent report stated that upon the return of humans to zoos in the UK and South Africa their meerkats exhibited behaviors associated with a positive mental state.
At Dvůr Králové and Brno Zoo, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) away, two big screens have been installed so that the animals could effectively hang out in a digital living room. The sound is off, freeing the chimps of the tedious “you’re on mute” narrative, and the chimps are getting used to their online pals.
“At the beginning, they approached the screen with defensive or threatening gestures, there was interaction,” said Gabriela Linhartova, curator of primates and carnivores at Safari Park Dvůr Králové, in an email to IFLScience. “It has since moved into the mode of ‘I am in the movies’ or ‘I am watching TV’. When they see some tense situations, it gets them up off the couch, like us when we watch a live sport event.”
The chimpanzooms are airing daily on Dvůr Králové's website and on their Youtube channel if you want to drop in.
Reviews have been mixed from the resident chimps, with some gladly eating and showing off snacks to their fellow Zoomers while others prefer to give the footage a wide berth. A male called Dingo and four females named Bonnie, Babeta, Suzi, and Chispi have been found to be the biggest fans and never miss an opportunity to check in with the other group.
While a success as it stands, chimpanzees usually tire of enrichment activities once they lose their novelty, so the keepers expect to finally hang up towards the end of March. Zoos are facing a particularly difficult time in Czechia as they have received little by way of government support to keep the animals sustained and entertained during the ongoing lockdown measures.
The chimpanzees’ video conferences are airing daily on the Safari Park's website where you can also find out how to support the zoo's animals.