At Empty Bronx Zoo, Staff Are Being Careful to Avoid Exposing Gorillas to the Coronavirus

Keep your distance. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Like businesses and government agencies in cities on lockdown across the country, the Bronx Zoo is working with a skeleton crew. To keep its animals well fed and maintain their environments — but also, in some special cases, to make sure they are not exposed to the coronavirus — an essential staff of about 300 is clocking in, working in two teams every other week. No staff members who work with animals have tested positive for COVID-19 yet. With a 265-acre campus and only about 120 staff members present at the park at any given time, staff members haven’t had a problem social-distancing.

The veterinary staff had also been following the research on COVID-19 for weeks, according to Jim Breheny, director of the Bronx Zoo and executive vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the city’s four zoos and one aquarium. There is currently no evidence that animals can spread the virus, but communicable diseases are always a concern for staff working with primates. “Because some of our animals are so closely related to people, especially our gorillas, we have primate protocols in place all the time,” Breheny said. “Whenever anybody works with primates, they will have masks on and face shields. That is both to protect the staff and protect the animals from any pathogens that might pass back and forth.”

The Bronx Zoo does not currently have live webcams and would not say whether it plans on streaming video of its animals during the lockdown as zoos across the country have done. The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden recently launched a red panda cam. Penguins at the Detroit Zoo and Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium were given free rein to explore the greater confines of their limited universes. Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, has asked people to write letters to their animals, which will then be read to the animals in Facebook videos.

“If we have to, we have people who can stay here. We have temporary supplies and cots. It’s not something that we’re totally unaccustomed to,” said Breheny. “Our staff have a sense of dedication, ownership, and responsibility for the animals.”

The zoo was making logistical preparations for a citywide lockdown weeks before it was announced. “We learned a valuable lesson from [Hurricane] Sandy,” said Breheny. “We made sure our generators were up and working. Our fuel stocks were full. Basically, we tried to be as self-sufficient as we could because we didn’t know what situation we would be facing.” According to Breheny, the zoo has been stockpiling grains, hay, and cleaning supplies for weeks. Should the supply chain become an issue, the zoo could function for about three weeks to a month without any deliveries.

While Sandy didn’t do substantial damage to any of the city’s zoos, it took nearly two days after the storm for staff members to reach the New York Aquarium on Coney Island to deliver supplies and equipment.

Managing the economic fallout of the pandemic may be a greater challenge than managing the day-to-day operations during the lockdown. Mid-April marks the beginning of the high season at the Bronx Zoo. Last weekend, the weather was sunny with temperatures in the 60s. “It was beautiful. We could have had a couple thousand people in the park,” said Breheny. “But it was empty. It’s just eerie.”

At Bronx Zoo, Staff Use Social Distancing With Gorillas