Day 6

Penguin tours and sunsets with red pandas: How zookeepers are handling COVID-19

Conservation parks and zoos worldwide have closed their doors to visitors because of COVID-19. Zookeepers in Canada and the U.S. told Day 6 how they've adapted to the crisis and what they're doing to keep the animals occupied while the crowds are away.

Izzy Wheatley is part of a team living and working at a Cornwall, U.K., wildlife conservatory during lockdown

Zookeeper Izzy Wheatley takes care of baby penguin chicks named Bee and Nemo at the Paradise Park wildlife sanctuary in Cornwall, U.K. Wheatley is part of a small team working and living at the park to care for the animals during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Paradise Park Cornwall/Twitter)

About a month ago, Izzy Wheatley moved out of her home for the first time. But she didn't get a flat with some friends — and most of her neighbours aren't even human.

After the United Kingdom announced its lockdown in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she and four co-workers hunkered down at Paradise Park, an animal conservation facility in Cornwall.

"This time of the year on a nice, sunny, slightly windy day, you know, we'd be absolutely jam-packed.... [Now] it's just dead quiet," Wheatley told Day 6.

"I've never seen the park like this."

Zoos and other animal facilities around the world have closed their doors to visitors because of the pandemic.

The financial consequences have hit harder and faster for some. New Brunswick's Cherry Brook Zoo announced this week they're closing down permanently, after 46 years in operation.

'We don't know how long we're going to be here'

Without paying visitors, Paradise Park has been relying on donations of money and animal or bird feed from supporters.

And as the lockdown stretches on, questions about the park's long-term survival slowly become more worrying.

"We don't know how long we're going to be here. We don't know how long the park can actually fund itself, before we're going to have to go into sort of drastic measures," said Wheatley.

"There's already talk of having less and less people in, just so we can keep the park running."

Staff at Paradise Park currently practise physical distancing while working. Breaks are staggered so they don't crowd their common areas. 

"It's slightly harder to organize the day, keeping in contact with people. Because obviously, as you can imagine, it's quite a teamwork job," said Wheatley.

"But we are still having to do exactly the same jobs: all the feeding, all the cleaning, still flying all of the birds like we would do in the shows to keep them nice and fit."

Staff at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg have been following similar practices. Zookeeper Jackie Enberg hasn't seen most of her co-workers for over a month because of the staggered shifts.

"Everybody's sort of just making the best of all the different situations they're in. But we're definitely trying to have a lot of fun," she said.

Part of that means keeping the animals company, in lieu of the usual crowds of visitors and admirers they may be used to.

"The harbour seals, for instance, there's a few of them that really like to interact up at the glass underwater with volunteers, and the public. And they play, they follow you around," Enberg explained.

Wellington gets his moment

The unusual circumstances have given rise to unexpected moments of joy, some of which have garnered a huge reaction online.

Wellington, a 32-year-old Rockhopper penguin, at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium became the centre of attention when images and videos emerged of him greeting the aquarium's beluga whales.

"We put it out on social media and it exploded," said Steve Aibel, Shedd's senior director of animal behaviour and training.

"We're really happy that, you know, our little penguin Wellington, our little superstar, was able to bring a bit of hope, perhaps, to the world when it needed it."

Some of the penguins at Shedd Aquarium have enjoyed the privilege of after-hours tours for several years. But with the location closed to visitors, they've been getting a lot more field trips.

"We took them up to see fish, and we've taken them down to see the whales. And we've taken them outside the building," said Aibel.

Wellington, a 32-year-old rockhopper penguin, meets other animals as exploring the aquarium's Amazon Rising exhibit at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago on March 15, 2020. (Shedd Aquarium via Reuters)

Back at Paradise Park, Wheatley has had time away from her shifts to enjoy the company of rare birds, and furry creatures like red pandas.

Even in the midst of unprecedented uncertainty, the setting provides a sort of sanctuary for its employees and custodians, she says.

"You do get to see the park when nobody else sees it. So you've got lovely sunsets every night; hearing all the animals call," Wheatley said.

"Although at the moment, in breeding season … it's very noisy."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Annie Bender.

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