Lockdown measures have placed at least one-third of humanity under near-house arrest, and in that time social media has been flooded with videos of people across the globe trying to keep themselves busy while being cooped up at home. But it’s not just human beings that are suffering from the isolation, as zoos and aquariums have become ghost towns. As such, keepers have been going above and beyond to ensure the same level of enrichment and engagement for their animals, which is needed to keep them happy and healthy.
Zookeepers at the Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) London Zoo have been recording video diaries as to how zoo life goes down when the visitors aren’t around. The zoo usually receives over 1.25 million visitors per year, meaning the animals have grown accustomed to seeing humans treading the walkways through the grounds. As such, the keepers have taken matters into their own hands to increase the interaction time with their animals and make sure they're being entertained. "We now really need to up the game when it comes to enrichment just to make sure they’re stimulated and occupied and being busy all day,” it says.
Elsewhere in the UK at Whipsnade Zoo, keepers are pleased to report that life is continuing at near-normal thanks to their already rich schedule of species-specific enrichment activities. “Enrichment – using props, food or tools to encourage natural behavior – is a core part of life at the Zoo,” said Alex Cliffe, team leader at ZSL’s Whipsnade Zoo in an email to IFLScience. “For example, we’ve begun target training the freshwater stingray in the Aquarium, which means we use rewards to encourage them to respond to a specific prop… In the Butterfly House, we have a crocodile pool, and we recently gave them a whole carcass, they have to use their powerful muscles to get to their dinner.”
“We’re a little more relaxed about cleaning the exhibit windows before 10 am (when we’d normally open to the public), but that’s about it! I have been lucky enough to spend a lot more time with the incredible animals to keep them company while we adjust to the new reality but our day to day hasn’t changed. Life goes on at the Zoo!”
At the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Wellington, a male rockhopper penguin has been taken for strolls within the aquarium grounds to explore the exhibits. One particular field trip saw the 32-year-old rockhopper visit the Underwater Viewing area of Shedd’s Oceanarium habitat, which is home to several beluga whales including a calf born just last year called Annik. Belugas are native to the Northern Hemisphere, while all penguin species are found in the Southern Hemisphere, so the encounter was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the two species.
"Our training program addresses the physical, social and mental well-being of each animal in our collection. Enrichment helps to stimulate the animals’ well-being both physically and psychologically,” said Steve Aibel, senior director for the Animal Behavior and Training Department at the Shedd Aquarium. “Types of enrichment may include our famous penguin field trips, various types of interactions such as play, and exercise, as well as a wide variety of different types of toys. With the aquarium being empty, we have been able to give the birds new spaces in which to explore and that has been fun for the birds and for us.”
At the Georgia Aquarium, a nonprofit in Atlanta, USA, a pause in visitors has freed up more time in the day for more focused enrichment sessions for their host of intelligent marine life, including California sea lions, seals, dolphins, beluga whales, and penguins to name a few. The aquarium also has some digital entertainment for would-be visitors, as their live webcams offer an insight into their exhibits from the safety of your home.
In an email to IFLScience, Eric Gaglione, vice president of zoological operations at Georgia Aquarium said, “We obviously are not doing animal encounters or presentations without guests, so we are able to use that time to do some fun enrichment sessions, or additional trainer/animal sessions to continue to build their relationships while also keeping them physically and mentally engaged... we do these sessions and provide animal care on a daily basis – what’s changed is the flexibility we have to do these throughout the day.”
At the Texas State Aquarium, keepers decided to take their three-toed sloth, Chico, out on a jaunt to see his neighboring wildlife. Among the field trips, there was also a flock of flamingos who took a strut in full flamingo formation through the tunnels of the aquarium’s exhibits. Flamingos are social animals and exist in colonies that number in the thousands when out in the wild.
Zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries across the globe are under great stress to maintain the upkeep of facilities and feed animals during the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns. As such, many are seeking public support to help them keep going, be it through adopting an animal, making a donation, or becoming a member. If you’d like to lend a hand, you can follow the links below to find information on how you can do this.