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How Orange County zoo animals are adapting to no visitors around

It’s been about six months since Orange County’s two zoos shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic and some of the animals are clearly missing their visitors, but  zookeepers said they’ve been able to use this time to improve exhibits and get the grounds ready for people to return safely.

Orange County is home to two zoos: Santa Ana’s 20-acre zoo at Prentice Park and the county’s zoo at the heart of Irvine Regional Park that has been around in some form since 1905.



Santa Ana Zoo Manager Ethan Fisher said the animals quickly picked up on the lack of visitors and some have adapted well to the times, while others crave the missing attention and interaction with humans.

“The animals actually watch us as much as (visitors) watch them,” Fisher said, like the personable Capuchin monkeys that are usually very active and engaging with visitors.

And the goats in the petting area are missing having the kids around to play with, he said, so the zoo’s staff has been trying to give them a little extra attention.

The staff has also taken this opportunity to take animals out into other areas of the zoo and introduce them to one another.

“It’s been fun seeing the reactions and interactions of the animals,” Fisher said.

The miniature donkeys, Sebastian and Dante, have been a hit, he said. “Some of the monkeys reacted with a lot of curiosity and were investigating the donkeys.”

Mary Creed-Booth, the OC Zoo’s curator of education, said in many ways, life at the zoo hasn’t been affected all that much by the coronavirus.

“Some of what we do hasn’t changed a whole lot in terms of the animal care, so on the side of our zookeepers they’re all still doing the same job that they have been doing,” she said. “We’re pretty used to having the animal keepers wear masks anyways in this industry so, in all honesty, it’s not a gigantic change for some of the staff.”

The zookeepers and staff are still cleaning the exhibits and feeding and providing enrichment for the 130 animals on a regular basis, she said, except staffers are now limiting their contact with each other.

Zookeepers have been using the time since closing to the public on March 15 to put more safety measures in place both to protect the visitors and the animals and make updates to the spaces.

The OC Zoo, which opened as a county facility in 1985, is looking to create a one directional path throughout the grounds so people don’t stop and crowd around popular exhibits like the black bears and mountain lions.

Visitors will not be able to pet or feed any of the animals for a while and any kind of interaction with the animals will be limited to staff only.

“Obviously some people, once we reopen, they won’t think that they’ll be able to have any of the animal interactions; that really is what is popular and what people love and gets them excited about animals and wanting to learn more if they can see it really close or touch it,” Creed-Booth said.

Some of the Santa Ana Zoo’s newest amenities include an outdoor exhibit for pygmy marmosets, two new anteaters – a personal favorite of UCI-alum Fisher – and a giant river otter habitat that will soon be ready.

Fisher said the wooden fencing recently installed around some of the animals’ exhibits to add more barriers at the 68-year-old zoo blends in nicely with the landscape. “When you stand back and look at the changes we’ve made, it actually looks quite discreet even though it’s there.”

People will still be able to see the animals through new Plexiglas screens, and while there won’t to be any physical interaction, there will be socially distanced animal presentations curated by the zoo.

Officials at both zoos said they don’t have an opening date set yet, but they have been monitoring how other zoos are operating and the reopening plans of larger institutions such as aquariums and museums.

Mandating masks upon entrance, limiting the capacity for visitors and keeping some of the exhibits closed should be expected and the Santa Ana zoo will be keeping attractions such as its playground, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and train rides off line in the beginning.

Though their gates remain closed, both have continued to connect with the community through virtual programming, behind-the-scenes videos and educational opportunities for students.

Source: Orange County Register

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