Animal Care Animal Welfare COVID-19

Animal Care and the COVID-19 Crisis

By Ben Lybarger

By now we all have seen viral posts of penguins and tortoises strolling the empty corridors of zoos and aquariums in place of human visitors. While these videos succeed in giving the public a reason to smile amidst the current pandemic, they do not tell the whole story. Just as our own collective health and safety are a primary concern, the welfare of wild animals under human care is also a vitally important responsibility. As the economy grinds to a halt and stay-at-home orders are issued, the ability of zoos and wildlife sanctuaries to perform this essential duty has encountered significant challenges, as well as some creative solutions.

Animal care workers provide food, enrichment, sanitation, and health services for diverse species with widely varying needs. This requires not just money for things like species-appropriate diets, cleaning and disinfecting products, bedding, and environmental controls, but also wages for those entrusted with their maintenance, health, and safety. Every zoo and sanctuary is experiencing a different financial situation: some are a part of larger institutions receiving taxpayer support (albeit limited), while others stand alone as singular nonprofits less equipped to endure this economic collapse. Regardless of size and resources, though, all institutions currently closed to the public face extreme losses of revenue from visitors, as well as the loss of critical support from volunteers.

At one end of the spectrum, a small German zoo without government funding has publicly floated a harrowing worst case scenario where some non-endangered animals could eventually be euthanized and fed to other species. While no other institution has publicly contemplated such extreme measures, even the biggest zoos are feeling the panic. For instance, the San Diego Zoo is operated by San Diego Zoo Global, a nonprofit organization with 3000 employees. As such, it is not eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which is part of the coronavirus stimulus ball passed in the U.S. to help businesses and organizations with under 500 employees. Thus, they have also been forced to furlough employees like so many other zoos.

A zookeeper with a Galapagos tortoise (Geochelone nigra) at Auckland Zoo. Photo: Avenue (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Presently, many institutions are urgently seeking help in the form of new memberships and private donations to their emergency operating funds, including those set up by the Cincinnati Zoo and Aquarium, the San Antonio Zoo, Smithsonian’s National Zoo, and too many others to list. For an ever-growing portion of these organizations, large numbers of employees have lost their jobs. For example, the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium has temporarily laid off approximately 33% of its employees and their executive staff are working without pay, while the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago was similarly forced to furlough nearly one third of workers.

For wildlife sanctuaries and rescue centers around the world, the challenges can be even more daunting. Bolivia, for example, recently endured a catastrophic fire season last year that burned more than 10 million acres and killed more than 2 million animals, followed by political turmoil that brought the country to a halt. Now a global pandemic has left their sanctuaries without new volunteers and the income that they generate. Recently, the country’s 26 wildlife custody centers declared themselves in a state of emergency, urgently requesting aid from governmental authorities. Fortunately, some aid has arrived very recently in the form of chickens and other food sent by the Ministry of Environment and Water. Nevertheless, nonprofit rescue centers and sanctuaries continue to rely heavily upon support from their own online fundraising, such as efforts by Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY) and La Senda Verde, as well as hosts of individual campaigns by dedicated former volunteers.

As someone who has spent many months caring for spider monkeys and other animals for CIWY at two of their sanctuaries, I know the amount of hard work being performed by incredibly dedicated animal care staff and volunteers, as well as the financial struggles organizations like this experience even when times are good. Together, sanctuaries like those operated by CIWY, La Senda Verde, and the others calling for help in Bolivia provide care for more than 4,000 animals, a large proportion of which are endangered species, and all of which are victims of wildlife trafficking, habitat destruction, or abuse. The same story can be told for organizations across the border in Peru, such as Amazon Shelter and Taricaya Rehabilitation Center, as well as countless other sanctuaries around the globe.

Concerns about the availability of important supplies loom even when funding is adequate. Some zoos and aquariums in the U.S. have been stocking up on food and supplies, especially the more specialized dietary items. In addition, all of them have been placed in the tricky situation of having to stretch out their supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), while simultaneously extending its use to more species. Stringent PPE protocols to protect against pathogens have always been essential when working with certain taxa, such as primates and bats, but they now apply to more families, including mustelids and felids. These expanded measures became more urgent after a tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, leading to increased fears of both zoonosis and anthroponosis (i.e. infections passing both ways between animals and humans). Among other barriers to transmission, it is essential that keepers use the same gloves and masks that the rest of the world is also clamoring to acquire.

Rusber Jimenez provides veterinary care for an endangered spider monkey (Ateles chamek) at the Machía Wildlife Sanctuary operated by Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi in Bolivia. Photo by Ben Lybarger.

Some non-essential preventive veterinary care at many institutions housing wild animals has also been temporarily suspended. This is to thwart the potential transmission of the virus between human staff, since many times two or more people need to be present in close proximity to one another in order to conduct physical examinations or administer vaccines. Otherwise, the animals are being cared for normally. Keepers continue to clean, disinfect, maintain, and enhance animal areas. They provide meals, carefully observe and note behaviors, monitor the animals for signs of illness or stress, and keep records on each individual as well as group dynamics. Many keepers are even providing more enrichment than usual, which means the animals receive even more novel items intended to encourage species-typical behaviors (such as foraging, investigating, climbing, playing, etc.).

Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) with a ball enrichment, Prague Zoo. Photo by Petr Hamerník. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In addition to upholding their standards of care for the animals, many zoos have been steadfast in their focus on public education. The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is presenting daily Virtual Classrooms, the Akron Zoo (where I work as a wild animal keeper) provides daily lunch and learn talksonline, and many other zoos around the country are offering similar distance learning opportunities. Meanwhile, the much larger Wildlife Conservation Society (which operates five zoos and aquariums) has become unrelenting in their public outreach on the issue of wildlife trade, and the San Diego Zoo Global Academy is currently offering eight weeks of free access to their Animal Species online learning modules.

I can offer firsthand testimony regarding the professional commitment of zoo staff who greet each other every day from a safe, awkward distance; who carefully wipe down not just animal enclosures, but also door knobs, keyboards, and broom handles; and who compromise none of the support and attention that they offer to those animals with whom they are privileged to work.

Please take a few moments to use the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) website and urge your representatives to include zoos and aquariumsin any economic relief legislation. And if you have expendable income, please consider directly supporting any of the animal care organizations around the world that remain unwavering in their devotion to animal welfare and conservation. It is our collective responsibility to make sure that no animal gets left behind.

COVER PHOTO: Red panda (Ailurus fulgens) courtesy of Ishaan Raghunandan. Used by permission.

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