Keepers and staff at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, which has been closed to the public since March 17, say the animals have definitely noticed something’s going on.
Or, rather, not going on.
“For a lot of our animals, the guests who visit are a great form of enrichment,” said Rachel Wright, the zoo’s public relations and social media manager. “The orangutans and gorillas, human primates we call them … they watch us through the glass the same as we watch them. They’re interested in what we’re doing, and they’re intelligent animals, so they definitely notice when people aren’t coming through.”
Zoo staff remain at work, so the animals are still getting dedicated and top-notch care, training and the human interaction that comes with it, Wright said.
But that’s not the same as having more than 2,000 admirers, window-tappers and treat-givers flowing by on a sunny spring day.
“The lead keeper in the wallaby yard said she has noticed a difference, in the mornings especially. They’re just wanting a lot more affection and attention,” said Wright, standing in an outdoor area of the Australian Walkabout exhibit that normally would be full of guests jockeying to hand-feed the thigh-high marsupials, which resemble miniature kangaroos.
The space is now strewn with toys meant to help keep the group engaged and “enriched.”
“People at the zoo who don’t work with animals, too, I think we’re all feeling a big responsibility to act as the guests, so we go and visit them as often as we can and make sure they’re still interacting with people they don’t know very well, because that’s their normal life,” Wright said.
The zoo’s longest closure ever has offered insights into what many keepers have long suspected.
“It’s kind of cool, because it’s not like in the animals’ history we’ve ever been able to prove that animals like people around,” Wright said. “Now we know.”
While some species could give two howls about the lack of crowds (wild Mexican wolf pack), many others perk up at any signs of approaching bipeds.
Giraffes are kind gaga for people right now.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before, the way they just rushed over like that. They’re, like, ‘Where are my humans?,’” said Wright, as she fed lettuce snacks to the eager herd on Day 24 of the closure. “Normally, in the barn at this time, you would not be getting this kind of attention. They’ve already been fed, and lettuce makes up just a small treat for them. It’s more just a cool engagement between guests and giraffes. They’re not over here because they’re like, ‘Oh, food!.’ Look how stoked they are about it.”
Hear that banging, from the far end of Primate World?
“That’s Hadiah smashing for you to come see her,” said animal keeper Eleanor Knox. Hadiah, a Bornean orangutan, shares her enclosure with 5-year-old daughter Ember. Both are accustomed to engaging with guests through the glass.
“That (noisy behavior) was definitely her seeking attention,” Knox said.
The zoo has also gone to special lengths to keep primates engaged, even bringing in “ambassador animals” — smaller mammals, such as Frida, the armadillo — for visits.
“Normally they’d be going out on other programs, but they’ve gotten brought down here to get to run around and have some exercise,” said Primate World keeper Carrie Supino. “The primates find it fascinating to see other a animals, up close and personal. It’s kind of like a zoo for them. I’m sure they’d never seen an armadillo before.”
With zoos around the world closed due to the pandemic, not every animal attraction is aching for the old days.
Two months without the prying eyes of guests at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park got sparks flying for middle-aged giant pandas Ying Ying and Le Le, who took the shutdown opportunity to mate for the first time in a decade. The park has been closed to visitors since January 26.
Keepers at Cheyenne Mountain were hoping the quiet time might have a similar effect on their western lowland gorillas.
Silverback male, Goma, was brought in three years ago as part of a breeding program, but he’s taking his time warming up to the ladies. Now that there are fewer distractions, keepers are hoping the gals might pay more attention to their potential suitor, and vice versa. Maybe they’d have their own “Ocean Park” moment.
“That’s what we’re kind of hoping, but I don’t know if that’s the case,” Knox said. “They’re still, like oh, whatever. He’s just there.”
What We Believe
We are driven by our deep respect for our environment, and our passionate commitment to sustainable tourism and conservation. We believe in the right for everyone - from all backgrounds and cultures - to enjoy our natural world, and we believe that we must all do so responsibly. Learn More