Day in and day out, Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities focus on survival, from animals in managed care to entire species in the wild. So when threats impact the facilities, themselves— through weather events, natural disasters, budget shortfalls, and, now, COVID-19—the leaders are well-practiced at navigating unexpected changes and adapting as they go.
For more than a year, AZA-accredited facilities have been pivoting—and then pivoting again—to continue to connect with audiences safely and remain afloat financially. Across the country, some popular endeavors include drive-through animal viewings, online educational offerings, and even animal Zoom bombings (i.e. making animals—and a keeper—available to show up on a video call, for a fee).
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people who care for endangered animals and actually witness their adaptability were also adaptable when it came to this,” said Tanya Peterson, chief executive officer and executive director of San Francisco Zoo in San Francisco, Calif. “We, as humans, turned out to be as resilient and adaptable as some of the species we care for.”
Read on to learn about the ways that AZA members have adapted to survive troublesome times, and what they’ve learned along the way.
In Oklahoma City, as bars and restaurants closed, and events were canceled, the team at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden was determined to keep people engaged. So last summer, they launched a new weekly offering called Sip and Stroll, inviting people 21 and older to enjoy food and beverages outdoors, as they meandered the Zoo grounds. Admission was $17, and for $24 they could purchase a drink “passport” which covered a drink from each of the six conservation-themed bars (some of which were underwritten by sponsors). Capacity was limited to 900 people per night and entry was timed to avoid crowds.
“It was fantastic,” said Greg Heanue, the chief marketing officer at the Zoo. He says the event was a success on multiple levels: not only did the series help make up some of the revenue that was lost from months of closure; it also allowed the Zoo to connect with a sought-after audience of young adults who weren’t already regular guests. Post-event surveys found that 72 percent of attendees hadn’t visited the Zoo in at least two years. Plus, attendees had a great time.
Heanue said the popularity of the series emboldened him to dream up even more unique offerings, including a socially distanced Valentine’s dinner in the sea lion stadium. And in April, the Zoo will host a Paint and Sip event, where guests learn to paint an animal while enjoying beverages.
“We know that there’s interest in this beyond the novelty,” said Heanue. “I think the word is out that we actually deliver a really great experience.”
The National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pa., has also found success through its inventiveness, albeit virtually. Cheryl Tracy, the executive director of the National Aviary, said it was important for the Aviary to keep the public apprised of what was happening behind the scenes, even though the doors were closed March through July and then again in December.
They did that by sharing videos on social media—including a penguin love story that captivated hearts everywhere.
“Dottie the penguin had pneumonia and she was recovering in the hospital,” said Tracy. “She had a lifelong mate, Stanley, and once she got to the point that our vets felt she could have regular visits from Stanley, we started to do that, and her health started to improve even more rapidly, to the point that we eventually moved Stan in with her while she continued to receive care. We filmed everything and we had a big social media event the day the two of them returned to their habitat at Penguin Point at the Aviary.”
Dottie’s story, and others like it, drew 1,500 new donors to The National Aviary in 2020. In fact, last year was the facility’s most successful year to date for philanthropy. Tracy says social media will remain a focus in the future, even when normalcy returns.
“I think it really resonated with both the philanthropy and marketing department this year that we can reach so many more people through social media than through the different philanthropy methods,” she said.
When Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Ga., temporarily closed to the public in March because of COVID-19, Deputy Director Hayley Murphy was concerned other facilities holding wild animals in the area might need help. As a doctor of veterinary medicine, she had a deep understanding of disease transmission and felt there might be an opportunity to share insights and safety protocols. So she dialed her network, reaching out to contacts at the Georgia Department of Agriculture; the Georgia Department of Public Health; and the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Partnership (ZAHP), and proposed working together to create a free, COVID-19-centered training.
“We have animals that are highly endangered, and it’s our duty to protect both the people and the animals. You can’t do that in isolation anymore. You have to be part of a consortium of experts, I think, to do it effectively,” said Murphy.
Together, they devised Georgia’s COVID-19 Zoo and Exotic Training, and Murphy took part in presenting a four-hour virtual PowerPoint presentation in October to more than 160 participants across the country and in Canada. Topics included proper disinfecting, minimizing risk to humans and animals, how to screen humans and animals for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, how to help workers and volunteers struggling mentally from the pandemic, inter-organizational communication, and more. To continue this work in the southeastern United States, Zoo Atlanta applied for and received a $5,000 grant, and will carry on its work with ZAHP, to be better prepared for future emergencies.
Reflecting on the last few months, Murphy said that having an established network to call on that already trusted the expertise of Zoo Atlanta was critical and initiating that first step was key to being resilient.
“There’s no guarantee in any zoo, no matter how good you are. You’re going to be impacted [by an emergency],” she said. “But you can mitigate it by being proactive.”
In the San Francisco Bay Area, air quality has become an ongoing challenge in recent years, with smoke from nearby wildfires choking the entire region. In response, the staff at the San Francisco Zoo stocked up on N95 masks and used air quality monitors designed by a local tech company to track pollution levels. When COVID-19 forced the Zoo to close its doors—initially for four months—the leadership team again worked with the tech community to devise devices that would help them re-open safely. The result: 30-foot-tall solar-powered devices that measure the flow and density of visitors as they move about the Zoo.
Today, in addition to monitoring air flow, the Zoo receives real-time data alerting them to areas that are congested—like the paths near the penguin pool and the big cats—so that they better predict guest behavior, and redirect people as needed to allow for social distancing.
Not only do the devices provide data that the Zoo can share with the local government and media; they’re also a talking point among guests.
“They’re pretty striking,” said Peterson. “We call them Blue Angels. I think our guests feel comfortable seeing them.”
Resiliency seems to be in the DNA of the Tulsa Zoo in Tulsa, Okla. Just over ten years ago, the then-underfunded, city-operated Zoo nearly lost its accreditation because of financial issues. It responded by establishing a successful private-public partnership, in which the city owns the Zoo and the non-profit, Tulsa Zoo Management Inc., operates it. That history helped establish a culture of resiliency.
“Because of our history with being underfunded, we were always being very fiscally conservative, and we were very careful with the growth that we had out here,” said Lindsay Hutchison, who is president and chief executive officer at the Zoo.
When the pandemic temporarily closed its doors, and the Zoo cut its part-time staff, Hutchison said full-time employees rose to the occasion, offering virtual programming, volunteering at the fall HallowZOOeen fundraising event, and filling in wherever they could.
“While we’re resilient and scrappy, and we all are willing to do the extra work, I think it’s important to remember that no one here is more important than anybody else. I have to get down there to the admissions booth and answer the phone as the CEO, just as I would ask anyone else here,” said Hutchison.
The community’s response has been promising: fundraising and donations increased from past years, and in December, the Zoo set a record for gift membership sales. At the same time, stress and fatigue among staff has been a concern. To show appreciation, Hutchison said her team has focused on offering inexpensive perks, like allowing employees to wear jeans at designated times and bringing in food trucks to serve hot chocolate or snow cones. She knows how important it is to keep everyone safe, healthy, and happy—and that includes the employees. So often, it’s those small but creative gestures that make a difference.
“While we can’t give everybody infinite bonuses or raises, as much as everybody probably deserves, these are the things we can do right now, while maintaining a solid bottom line for our Zoo, so we have a zoo in the future,” she said.
Hero image credit: ©San Francisco Zoo
Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.