Tim Snyder has been curator of birds at the Chicago Zoological Society - Brookfield Zoo for the past 12 years. Previously, he was at Birmingham Zoo in Birmingham, Ala.; the Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo.; and the San Antonio Zoo in San Antonio, Texas. Tim chairs the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Passerines Taxon Advisory Group and manages two passerine populations.
On 19 March, Brookfield Zoo temporarily closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To date no one on Tim’s staff has tested positive for COVID-19, and so he considers his team very fortunate. However, the pandemic and closure of Brookfield Zoo has created many challenges, and while that is true across the institution, Tim stresses that the Zoo is adequately staffed to take care of the animal population’s health and welfare, which always remains the institution’s highest priority.
As a result though, Tim’s routine and that of his staff have dramatically been altered.
“This time of year, we are usually focused on moving birds in and out of the population because you can only do that in the spring and fall when the weather cooperates.”
However, as of 1 March the institution had stopped all animal transaction for the safety of the staff who would have to work closely together as animals transitioned into and out of quarantine.
In addition, plans for some of this year’s breeding programs have been postponed. For example, a young male blue-crowned laughing thrush recently arrived at Brookfield Zoo from Denver Zoo. A female from San Diego Zoo® was to join the male, but had not arrived before transactions were halted. Therefore, plans for breeding the pair have been delayed—a potentially serious setback in efforts to conserve this critically endangered species.
On other fronts, Brookfield Zoo’s Humboldt Penguin Encounter program with guests has been canceled. One of the interesting things Tim has observed is the penguins continue to congregate at the regularly scheduled times outside the encounter’s room where they once mingled and interacted with Zoo guests.
Another COVID 19 casualty has been a research study using a custom-blend diet that was put on hold because the supplier suspended production of everything but the regular diet. The study’s purpose was to test the effect of a new custom-blend diet and nutritional supplement on the mortality rate of passerine chicks.
A large part of Tim’s job during the pandemic has been to bolster his staff’s moral and to help them stay focused.
“We’re creating new temporary routines to make it easier for staff to get into the flow of things. For instance, they give Facebook Live chats about the birds, which keeps them connected with Zoo members and the public as well as restore some sense of normalcy to their work. We’re still fulfilling the Zoo’s mission of reaching out and connecting people with animals and nature—that hasn’t stopped, it’s just very different the way we do it now.”
Despite these challenges, Tim says his problems are “not earth shattering,” especially compared with the danger faced by hospital workers, first responders, and others who work with the public. Snyder and his staff work mostly in isolation on Zoo grounds. It is the isolation and potential disconnect between staff members during the pandemic that worries Tim the most.
“When you’re social distancing, you’re not having meetings or meeting face to face and it’s a little harder to be collaborative and still be efficient. You have to be extra diligent with your communications to make sure you’re not losing pertinent information about the animals’ health and welfare.”
Photo Credit: © Jim Schulz, Chicago Zoological Society