The Current

This aquarium set up video calls at tanks so its eels could get used to people again

Zookeepers say animals are having a range of reactions to the disappearance of humans during the COVID-19 pandemic, from begging for more attention to complete indifference.

Zookeepers say animals having range of reactions to disappearance of human visitors

A child on a video call peers into a tank of garden eels at Sumida Aquarium in Tokyo. Aquarium staff set up the calls with the public because the eels, right, were no longer used to human visitors after a weeks-long closure due to the pandemic. (Sumida Aquarium/Reuters; The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)

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Staff at a Japanese aquarium installed video-calling equipment outside a tank full of garden eels this month, because after weeks of a COVID-19 closure, the eels just weren't used to having people around anymore.

"[The eels] were a little bit like, 'Oh gosh, what's going on? What are these figures?'" said Ellen Williams, a senior lecturer in animal science at Nottingham Trent University.

After the aquarium closed in March, staff noticed the eels were darting for cover whenever someone approached their tank. That made caring for them difficult as they were always buried in the sand. To get them used to people again, they set up tablet computers and asked the public to call in and talk to the eels over three days in early May. 

"It's just to get them used to voices and stuff and be aware of people around," Williams told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

With all the humans staying home, zoo animals around the world are having a mix of reactions to being suddenly without an audience.

Variety of reactions

Dolf DeJong, CEO of the Toronto Zoo, said it's been interesting to see the variety of reactions as he walks around his own deserted zoo. 

There are "the animals that will run right up — the gibbons in particular come to mind — as they really are excited to see folks, and other animals that really seem quite, quite indifferent whether we're there or not."

Williams said she's heard similar reports from other zoos, of primates calling out for their keepers and "wanting that little bit of attention," while other animals are "exploring their enclosures and doing things they would have done when the people were there anyway."

She said while we can never know what an animal is thinking, keepers know their animals well enough to gauge their condition.

"They spend a lot of time working with them, and they put a lot of care and a lot of time into catering for them," she said. 

"We never really truly know what an animal's thinking, so we sort of use what we know about behaviour and things like that to get a bit of a grasp of what the animal might be experiencing." 

Members of the public were encouraged to call into the aquarium and talk to the shy eels over three days at the beginning of May. (Reuters)

Animals born now won't see large crowds

This weekend, Toronto Zoo is reopening to the public with a drive-thru experience, but one of its newest residents won't be ready to meet the public just yet

Last week, the zoo announced the birth of a healthy Masai giraffe calf called Baby Long Legs.

"We're hoping Baby Long Legs will actually be outdoors in the next month or so, and perhaps folks will get a glimpse of her at the drive-thru zoo," said DeJong.

But once the zoo is allowed to have limited visitors explore the zoo on foot, "that type of experience presents a lot of challenges," he told Galloway.

"People are excited, they want to get close and they want to see this animal for themselves. 

"It'll be quite some time before we're able to actually open that up at any level to really get a volume of people."

Williams said that when zoos do reopen to crowds, people should be conscious of the fact the animals "had quite a long period without people."

Flocking to see newborns, such as Baby Long Legs, might be a bad idea, she said, especially if physical distancing measures are still in place. 

"Being a bit quieter and just being a little bit calmer would, I think, really be helpful for the animals."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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