Faced with COVID-19 related closures and challenges and subsequent re-openings, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums community adapted and technology has played a key role.
This article focuses on initiatives at five AZA-accredited facilities—Saint Louis Zoo in St. Louis, Mo. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio; Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla.; North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C.; and San Diego Zoo in San Diego, Calif.—in the areas of animal care, education, conservation, and operations—and from pandemic related closings to recent re-openings.
Pre-pandemic initiatives with technology and associated partnerships were a foundation for scaling and adaptability during COVID-19 closings and re-openings. And some of the COVID-19 technology related initiatives have provided insights into operational possibilities that could become part of regular post pandemic operations.
COVID-19 has affected how zoos and aquariums handle admission. Most were required to limit admissions and shift to timed ticketing during the nationwide restrictions. Some of the practices have been found to improve operations overall and will remain in place in the future.
"At the Zoo itself, like many AZA institutions, the pandemic led to a shift in admissions with a focus on timed tickets being purchased online in advance of the visit," said Dr. Corinne Kendall, curator of conservation and research at the North Carolina Zoo. "This gave us greater access to email information of guests and allowed us to shift our visitor surveys from in-person to online. We have maintained a response rate over ten percent even with this new online focus."
Meg Sutherland-Smith, DVM, director of veterinary services at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, talked about reopening with social distancing.
"The San Diego Zoo GIS mapping was helpful in looking at visitor versus keeper traffic flow patterns and identifying choke points. Zoos can also undertake the traffic flow pattern analysis without GIS using the mapping tool from the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Partnership website," said Sutherland-Smith.
North Carolina Zoo had little experience with online learning prior to 2020. With COVID-19, educators dove into the virtual world (e.g., Facebook Lives, nature play videos, virtual camps) and reached new audiences in 15 countries and 35 states.
"Virtual Summer Camps changed my outlook on what virtual programming can look like. The best part was finding the new, and sometimes little ways, we could tell they were engaged," said Leslie Wilhoit, summer camps coordinator at the Zoo. "Actions like changing their virtual backgrounds to answer a question and 'yelling' secret words or emojis in the chat made a world of difference."
People wanted virtual content, as evidenced by the more than one million views for the Zoo EDventures series which was broadcast via North Carolina Zoo's Facebook.
"It never ceases to amaze me how during an emergency zoo folks jump into action to help," said Vicki Searles, director of conservation education at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. "Teams connected most closely with the mission of the Zoo—those working in education, conservation and science, and animal care—quickly joined forces with the park staff to provide programming for those homebound."
A virtual classroom, webpage, and social media posts led followers to the twice-daily, Facebook Lives highlighting Zoo animals and mission-oriented park operations. Recordings of segments, using only the basic tools they had at the time, along with connected at-home educational activities, were added each day to the website for future access.
Goals met included providing standards-based science support to teachers and students, giving respite from the tension experienced by some, and retaining connections the Zoo had with its dedicated volunteers and donors. Many of the virtual programs were recorded and will supplement both synchronous virtual field trips and on-site programming in the coming year.
At the Saint Louis Zoo, educators created conservation learning videos sent to Zoo members weekly while the Zoo was closed March-to-June 2020, as well as a free weekly webinar series, virtual camp, and more. During the autumn of 2020, and continuing through 2021 as area schools are primarily virtual or not permitting field trips, interactive distance learning is keeping classes engaged with the Zoo, its animals, staff, and conservation programs.
Teachers found learning-support value in virtual field trips. On-demand program survey respondents indicate a 4.52 agreement (5.0 scale) of the program supporting learning standards. Publicly available, free webinars also supported student learning, with 99 of 121 open ended responses referencing support of their curriculum, student learning, and/or science standards.
All virtual program participants referenced the importance of engagement with the Zoo for their students and providing a sense of "fun" and "normalcy" during a year in which they were not allowed to take field trips.
Based upon post-program evaluations (example: 99 percent of survey respondents indicating interest in webinars in the Fall of 2021), as well as a pre-assessment survey sent to over 6,000 teachers about what they anticipate the 2021-22 school year will look like, the Saint Louis Zoo will continue to offer a robust suite of virtual programs for schools this coming year, in addition to re-imagined in person programs.
In the era of social distancing,keeping audiences connected to the Zoo's conservation work was vitally important. Throughout 2020, and for the first half of 2021, the Saint Louis Zoo hosted seven WildCare Institute virtual happy hours and invited guests age 21 and older to join. As attendees sipped their adult beverage of choice (with fun, unique, and theme appropriate drink recipes provided), Zoo staff representing different conservation centers shared stories about animals and conservation work.
These engaging happy hours covered a variety of topics, including Humboldt penguin censuses in Peru, helping provide communities in Madagascar with a stable source of food, and the wonderfully weird characteristics of American burying beetles. These happy hours were produced through a collaboration between education and the Wild Care Institute.
Zoo preschool went virtual in spring and fall of 2020 offering nature-based, child-directed and individualized learning for children ages 3-5 and their families in a safe, virtual space. Hybrid single family experiences in outdoors areas were added and continued through the spring of 2021.
"During a year where there is already so much to consider, this opportunity provides families with a passionate group of educators committed to reaching every child where they are, and helping them to reach their full potential, while also supporting their family and community," said Laura Seger, manager of learning experiences. "Like many of life's adventures, this may not have been what they planned, but magical and amazing things can still come from it."
Prior to the temporary COVID-19 shutdown, the science operations team representing Disney's® Animal Kingdom and the Seas with Nemo and Friends had multiple ongoing research projects focused on the behavior and welfare of their residents. Once the park closures were announced, even more questions were raised in relation to the absence of guests and the eventual reopening of the parks.
During the initial stages of the shutdown, the team was limited to a work from home capacity. To continue with ongoing and initiate new projects, the team relied on several technologies including remote video monitoring. Utilizing security and facility monitoring cameras became crucial to monitoring the social dynamics of the Nile crocodile group; the reproductive behavior of the critically endangered blue-crowned laughing thrush, who were just entering their breeding season; and the activity budgets of the bottlenose dolphin pod. Additional cameras were linked to cloud storage devices to monitor the lesser flamingo flock, also entering the breeding season, and a focal species living in the main entryway to the park.
When more advanced videoing was not possible, the old reliable video camera came out—various species including Sumatran tiger, African elephant, babirusa, and giant anteater were monitored this way.
"Video has been something we have relied on for some time when direct observations were not possible—such as overnight monitoring or monitoring when human presence may affect behavior," said Dr. Austin Leeds, research manager, Disney's® Animal Kingdom. "Our earlier investment in this process set us up for success when presented with this unique challenge of the park shutdown and finding creative ways to keep projects going. We were able to adjust and expand our existing reliance on video to keep existing projects going and were also able to start new projects remotely."
Dr. Katie Leighty, animal care director, Disney's Animal Kingdom® added, "The work of the science operations team has been invaluable to our understanding of how our animals adjusted to our altered operating environment during our closure as well as their response as we welcomed guests back to the park."
For other Disney's® Animal Kingdom projects, such as the western lowland gorilla, project scopes were adjusted and husbandry teams picked up where the science operations team left off.
Using data collection tools such as ZooMonitor®, developed by the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., science operations was able to orient and train their husbandry team members to collect data in their absence. While technology was a huge piece of the success during the park closure, what cannot be under sold was the investment in people. Relationships with various partners allowed technology to remain functional during the shutdown and the investment in scientific training for husbandry staff allowed them to seamlessly step in with scientific monitoring of their species.
"Our keepers and managers have a solid foundation in using science to guide day to day management decisions, and their passion and commitment to continuing to use that same approach even when our science partners weren't physically present led to creative problem solving and even stronger partnerships," said Dr. Mandi Schook, the science operations director at Disney's® Animals, Science and Environment.
The ability to monitor animals remotely continued to have value as the parks reopened. With attendance capacity limits and physical distancing guidelines in place, it was not a return to normal for research and systematic behavior monitoring.
The continued use of video technology allowed teams to monitor animal behavior while fully practicing COVID-19 safety protocols. This contributed to a stronger understanding of the animals' response to reopening. Notably, the gorillas were observed to be glued to their viewing window, suggesting they may be just as interested in seeing the return of guests as the returning guests were in seeing them.
In addition, the science operations and Ituri Forest teams continued to monitor the Nile crocodiles' behavior and found no major change in their behavior when guests were present or absent, the findings of which were published in early 2021 and are the first such results to be published from within AZA.
During the pandemic, North Carolina Zoo has been able to continue conservation efforts thanks to the Zoo's focus on long-term projects with field staff, well-developed partnerships, and the use of technology.
"Telemetry allowed us to continue gathering information on African vulture movement even when on the ground efforts slowed at the beginning of the pandemic. Vulture telemetry is one key tool for identifying poisoning incidents, which are a major threat not only to vultures but also to carnivores," said Dr. Corinne Kendall, curator of conservation and research at the North Carolina Zoo. "With over 20 active units, we have continued to receive valuable information about vulture movement and poisoning activities across a large portion of Tanzania since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020."
Technology and technology expertise are two aspects of resilience that have provided a means for AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to adapt to COVID-19 closings and re-openings. The St. Louis Zoo, Cleveland Metro Parks Zoo, Disney's Animal Kingdom, North Carolina Zoo, and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance experiences are just a subset of experiences across the AZA community and highlight AZA facility resourcefulness and the potential of greater mission focused technology adoption post pandemic.
Hero photo: Caitie Shelley discusses the needs and care of elephants during Cleveland Metroparks Zoo's Virtual Field Trip.
Louise Bradshaw is the Fred Saigh director of education at the Saint Louis Zoo.
Vicki Searles is the director of conservation education at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
Austin Leeds is the research manager at Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Seas with Nemo and Friends.
Mandi Schook is the science operations director at Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Seas with Nemo and Friends.
Dr. Katie Leighty is the animal care director Disney's Animal Kingdom and the Seas with Nemo and Friends.
Dr. Elizabeth Folta is the curator of education at the North Carolina Zoo.
Corinne Kendall is the curator of conservation and research at the North Carolina Zoo.
Meg Sutherland-Smith,DVM, is the director of veterinary services at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.