Melbourne, Australia – Every year, millions of visitors head to zoos across Australia to look at the animals stuck in their enclosures, but with many people now in lockdown themselves, animals are missing their human admirers, and zoos and wildlife parks are losing crucial income.
Strict government measures to control the coronavirus pandemic have forced shops, restaurants and entertainment venues across Australia to close, so zookeepers have been going the extra mile for the animals in the absence of visitors.
Sticking to daily routines is important for the animals, zoo owners say, so exhibitions and shows have been continuing on schedule in many zoos despite empty seats.
“The animals love and miss our zoo visitors,” said Terri Irwin, owner of Australia Zoo on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
“They are used to large groups of people admiring them and telling them that they are beautiful and amazing.”
Accustomed to hugs from guests, Irwin said some of the koalas have been following staff around for extra cuddles, while other animals have been taken for walks or allowed to wander around the zoo gardens.
“It’s more important now than ever, that every animal receives extra attention,” said Irwin, who began managing Australia Zoo alongside her late husband Steve Irwin – known as ‘The Crocodile Hunter’ i- n 1992.
“We make sure our birds get to fly, our rhinos get lots of back scratches while they’re in their mud baths, and we take our animals out for walks and adventures.”
In Melbourne, many of the primates enjoy watching and mimicking zoo visitors, said Jenny Gray, chief executive of Zoos Victoria, so in the absence of people, staff have been providing “items that keep them busy and encourage their natural behaviours”.
“For example, our two female Orang-utans, Kiani and Gabby, at Melbourne Zoo often climb up high, to a platform where they can see visitors through a glassed viewing area, and then mimic what they see visitors doing,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Gabby often tries to look inside visitors’ bags and Kiani copies anyone cleaning. So keepers have been playing movies on the TV screen in the visitor space that the Orang-utans can see, and have continued to provide the Orang-utans with enrichment items along with additional keeper interactions.”
At Werribee Open Range Zoo, the lions were given giant balls filled with hay and smeared with zebra dung, which they “investigate using their natural behaviours” Gray said.
While the public may not be able to see these activities in person, they can watch feeding time, playtime and other enrichment activities on the park’s livestreams.
Highlights have so far included penguins enjoying an inflatable mini bouncing castle, zebras and giraffes playing together during special visits, a reptile “swim gym” and the adventures of three adorable snow leopard cubs.
It is not just the animals who have captivated viewers: Impromptu dance routines by one keeper in the giraffe enclosure have also gone viral on social media.
Gray said the live streams have proved to be a huge hit, with 2 million views in the first month.
Before the March lockdown, 22 million people visited Australian zoos and aquariums annually, according to the Zoo and Aquarium Association.
After six weeks without ticket sales, many zoos had reached crisis point with animals still needing to be fed, keepers paid and enclosures maintained.
Zoo owners say a 95-million Australian dollar ($61.3 million) emergency government funding package – which will be distributed this month to more than 100 zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums – will help them stay afloat, but with daily food bills alone running into tens of thousands of dollars, public donations are also crucial.
“While we may be closed to visitors, we can never actually close with over 1,200 animals to feed,” Irwin told Al Jazeera.
Animal adoptions and online shopping have become an important source of revenue in the absence of ticket sales.
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane has also introduced online education programmes including Q and A sessions to keep children connected and engaged while learning from home.
“Our world has changed, and our education system is being forced to adapt to unprecedented circumstances,” said Lone Pine’s Head of Education Kayla Ousley.
“We hope that by providing these resources to parents and teachers, we can offer some extra tools to help with this transition, and keep student’s natural curiosity for discovery alive.”
Lone Pine has also introduced animal sponsorship and 20 cameras that livestream the animals’ activities 24 hours a day, including a popular koala hangout dubbed “the cuddle train” and koala joey Poppy being bottle feed by her carers.
First bushfires, now COVID-19
When the lockdown forced zoos and wildlife parks to close, many were still recovering from one of Australia’s worst-ever fire seasons, in which experts estimate at least one billion birds, mammals and reptiles were lost.
Wildlife sanctuaries across the country are caring for hundreds of animals who were injured, orphaned or left homeless by the fires that raged in every state.
Since 2004, the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital has treated more than 90,000 animals due to extreme drought, human impact and bushfires.
The number accelerated this summer, while bushfires came so close that some of the zoo’s enclosures had to be evacuated.
In South Australia, Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park gave shelter to more than 600 koalas as well as numerous kangaroos, wallabies, possums, echidnas, goannas and more.
“We have about 500 animals of our own – not including the rescue centre animals – which still need to be cared for and fed every day,” said owner Dana Mitchell.
“So we still have all of our costs, minus our income.”
She said the public can help by purchasing gift cards for future visits, adopting animals or by simply donating to the park.
Even after doors reopen, it remains unclear how long it will take for domestic and international visitors to return. Certainly, the government is saying it will be a very long time before foreign tourists will be able to visit Australia again.
“A lot of our animals are hand-raised rescues, so very used to human contact, and they are missing their visitors,” Mitchell said.
“Our keepers are spending time with them all every day to make sure they still get the love they are looking for.”