Zoos and aquariums were hard hit by the pandemic, as many of them rely on ticket sales and donations from visitors to both care for their animals and fund critical research – and the residents get bored, too. Getting back to visit them (once it’s safe to do so in your local area) is therefore a decent way to help them out. However, you need to behave properly when you do return and don't, say, brazenly wander into animal enclosures to offer them some chips.
This is a lesson in zoo etiquette that was seemingly forgotten during lockdown by a woman who recently visited the El Paso Zoo in Texas. Eager to secure a more intimate kind of animal encounter, it’s reported she hopped over the enclosure’s barriers before wading into the water and taking a seat. The breach didn’t go unnoticed by some of the enclosure’s residents, two spider monkeys called Libby and Sunday, who were reportedly offered Hot Cheetos by the intruder.
While the stunt doesn’t appear to have caused lasting harm to the human or the monkeys, zookeepers have been quick to point out that the encounter could have ended very differently. "These are primates we're talking about,” said Mason Kleist to ABC7. “They could do some substantial damage to you. They may be small monkeys, but they can take you to the ground if they wanted to.”
Not only did the stunt put the trespassing visitor at risk, but it also threatened the health of the spider monkeys. Eating unfamiliar foods is a decent way to spark gastric distress for any primate species, so feeding zoo animals human snacks is a very bad idea. Furthermore, being so closely related means that we are very able to pass pathogens on to primates such as these spider monkeys, including COVID-19. Transmission of COVID-19 to closely related species has already been seen in gorillas.
"Anything that we have they could get as well, so COVID is no different," continued Kleist. "We took the necessary steps to prevent them from getting that, so for someone to just go in there and give them food from their hands could just ruin that."
The director of the El Paso Zoo, Joe Montisano, told Newsweek that – judging by the animals’ behavior – the monkeys were more bothered by the intruder’s presence than they were interested in the food. Her identity is known to the zoo, who have decided to press charges.
"The Spider Monkeys are fine. Maybe a little shaken up by the incident but they are fine,” said Montisano. "She is a very lucky and stupid girl as this could have had a very different outcome. As mild-mannered as some of our animals appear they are still wild animals and react that way."