Without visitors, Zoo is 'strange, spooky,' eager to reopen

Without visitors, Zoo is 'strange, spooky,' eager to reopen

With visitors absent, the St. Louis Zoo is a strange place, Zoo Director Michael Macek said. The grounds are left to the animals and a handful of keepers and veterinarians who are not working off site.

Macek talked about the Zoo in a Zoom interview with MetroSTL.

Q. How would you describe the Zoo grounds right now?

A. It’s really, really strange. I’ve been working at the St. Louis Zoo for just over 30 years. I’ve been in the field for something like 38 years. I’ve worked at two other zoos, and the St. Louis Zoo is over 110 years old, and we’ve never seen a time like this. It’s like a ghost town. It’s strange, spooky. It’s very unusual and unprecedented. We can’t wait to have our guests back.

One of the St. Louis Zoo’s outdoor exhibits soaks up a little springtime sunshine but none of the usual attention from visitors. During the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, visitors are barred from the zoo as well as from other such crowd-drawing venues. Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Zoo
Q. Any signs that the animals miss the people?

A. I think we have some. Certainly, they have their essential animal care staff that they see every day, but I do think that we are seeing some differences in their behavior. I know when I’m at the Zoo, maybe a couple days a week, I try to walk the grounds, and they’re certainly more interested in me than they probably normally would be. Big crowds may after a time be a little bit of white noise. A lot of the animals may enjoy interacting with guests. We have a number of animals who are like that.

Q. Any signs some of the animals are glad the visitors are gone?

A. Not necessarily. I will say some of the animals that appear to be glad that the visitors are gone are the wild ones. We are seeing, as you’ve probably seen on social media, more of the wild animals just kind of roaming around in the middle of the day that we might not normally see. Now on the Zoo grounds, we might not have much more than woodchucks or raccoons, but they are freely moving around us as if they’ve got the run of the place. 

There’s a video they show all over Europe showing wild goats and pigs walking on the streets of Paris.

A pathway in the St. Louis Zoo is eerily empty during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Zoo
Q. Has the Zoo laid off anyone or had them work at home?

A. We haven’t laid off anybody to date. We have instituted salary reductions for everybody pretty much across the board. We have a handful of part-time staff that would be in a better situation if they left and took unemployment. 

Something like 80 or 85 percent are working remotely. Those who are not working remotely are animal care staff, including the keepers and veterinarians.

Q. Are you getting on some social media right now?

A. We’ve been doing, as you can imagine, a lot of that. All of our material has to be collected by either the keepers or the PR team or the education team. We’re doing a lot of virtual connecting with our guests through all of the formats, the virtual platforms.

On our website, we’re doing real-time webinars for the education department. We have a pretty robust curriculum anywhere from early childhood up to teens and a handful of adult programs. Every single week, we’re renewing those. One week, that actually goes out to our members, and the following week it goes out to our general public. We’re continuing to do that week after week after week.

We did social media, certainly, but not to this degree, particularly in our education department. We’re seeing 500 to 900 percent increase in some of our video views, for example.

Q. Has anything gone viral?

A. The one video that has really gone super viral is some of our penguin videos. People love penguins.

We had one video where people were going for a walk to kind of visit some other penguins that were in the building. They were sort of in the public spaces and going where they normally wouldn’t go. That really went viral. [Also] the one where we were weighing our penguins. I can’t remember the number of hits. But it was the greatest number we’ve ever had.

Q. When do you think you might open?

A. We’re starting to consider that now.  I think we’ve got plans in place. When we receive more information from the city, we will probably be ready to go within a matter of three or four weeks.

Q. Any final words?

A. I know there’s a lot of concerns about the well being of the animals. Their course hasn’t changed at all. The well being of our staff, our animals and our guests is most important to us.

We have these three keys that we weigh every decision in the Zoo by. The very first is, people matter. People are our guests and are our staff. And then our second key is, animals always. And operational excellence. Everything we do we weigh against those first two keys.

Let whoever’s going to be reading this know that the animals are fine, they’re well. Their care has not altered at all. But they miss their guests, and we do too.

When we’re we’re ready, and we can  be open and safe, please come. 

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