Life Goes on Without People at the San Diego Zoo

Story by Larry Altman

Something odd happened after March 16 at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Where did all the visitors go?

The monkeys, orangutans and gorillas noticed.

“They definitely recognized there were no people there,” Animal Ambassador Rick Schwartz said. “They are accustomed to 9 o’clock hits. They like to see what people are doing.”

Zoo officials shut down the 100-acre site in Balboa Park and their Safari Park in Escondido to visitors in March when California stay-at-home orders were instituted to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Since then, views on the zoo and park’s webcams have grown significantly as animal lovers keep track of their favorite hippos, penguins and baboons at home.

Not long after the shutdown, the zoo welcomed the hatching of a Lappet Faced Vulture at the Safari Park, and the recent birth of a pygmy hippo — the first one in decades.

“What better day than Endangered Species Day to announce the birth of our first successful pygmy hippo calf in 30 years,” zoo workers wrote on their Facebook page May 15. “Congrats to first-time mom, Mabel. Every birth brings hope to this endangered species, but today is also a day for celebrating all that YOU continue to do for the wildlife in our care and worldwide.”

Unfortunately, Schwartz said, the zoo and Safari Park’s closure meant the public could not see the Safari Park’s “Butterfly Jungle” in person this year The only way to watch the exhibit with thousands of butterflies was to watch online.

For zoo workers deemed essential — the zookeepers, hospital workers and others who care for and feed the animals — life has gone on as usual during the break. It was just a bit quieter without the public around and with social distancing, masks, gloves and different work schedules required.

Nothing much changed in the primate areas where workers always have routinely worn protective gear because common colds and viruses can affect the animals, Schwartz said. None have come down with COVID-19.

Those zoo employees deemed non-essential — food servers and those working in gift shops, for example — were sent home. They stayed on the payroll for several weeks until some furloughs began, Schwartz said.

Meanwhile, zoo officials are working on plans to reopen. The answers could come in days.

In normal times, nearly 4 million people visit the San Diego Zoo each year, according to the zoo’s financial documents. About 1 million more attend the Safari Park. The zoo is home to more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals representing 660 species and subspecies, and a botanical collection with more than 700,000 plants.

The Safari Park is home to more than 2,600 animals representing more than 300 species, the zoo’s website said.

A lack of visitors means a lack of revenue. According to the zoo’s 2018 tax return, the Zoological Society of San Diego grossed $162 million from admissions and merchandise sold, and $100 million in grants, contributions and membership fees. According to the zoo’s 2019 financial statement, animal care and zoological habitat expenses were reported at nearly $235 million. Its total assets were listed at about $500 million.

Schwartz said the Zoo grows most of the plants it needs for food, including bamboo for red pandas and eucalyptus for koalas. There has been no interruption in food for the animals. Schwartz described it as restaurant and grocery store quality.

Across the country, zoos are struggling to make up for lost revenue during the COVID-19 crisis. The Birmingham Zoo in Alabama, for example, told NPR filed for help from the federal government. San Diego Zoo is selling special facemasks, and the Cincinnati Zoo is raising money with T-shirts featuring its star hippo.

The Los Angeles Zoo held its annual gala fundraiser on zoom and, for the first time, made it free for everyone to attend.

“Now more than ever we need your help,” the LA Zoo said on its website. The zoo did not respond to requests for an interview.