The small, bushy meerkat crawled out of its dusty home Wednesday morning and lifted itself atop the highest rock. It was an unusual shift for the elder keeping guard of its pack, including the new litter of pups.
For one, the people that this small African mongoose saw weren’t the usual humans that it has observed for the past few months.
These homo sapiens intruders were among the first batch of 200 visitors who snagged a ticket to enter the Los Angeles Zoo, which was reopening for the first time since it closed in March for 166 consecutive days because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re so glad to have this day. It’s such a milestone,” CEO & Zoo Director Denise M. Verret said. “Part of the reopening for me sort of allows some normalcy to return for people to have an opportunity to come out in a safe environment to see animals up close to embrace their lives.”
In the coronavirus era, the zoo experience has been stripped down to its barest bones to conform with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s safety protocols. It also took a financial hit, losing $11.7 million and seeing a dip in memberships since its closure, according to Verret.
Gone are the days of giraffe feedings, peering into telescopes to spy on zebras, or crowding along the fence to watch knobby flamingos stretch their wings.
Now, the zoo is limited to 1,200 visitors daily with 200 people per hour within the facility, which covers about 100 acres. Tickets are being sold in two-week blocks in case zoo officials need to modify their plan. Face masks are required for visitors and children age 2 and older. Outdoor eating facilities are closed but visitors can still buy grab-and-go items.
Additional signage reminds visitors to keep six feet apart, and markers on the asphalt show people where to go next. And large events aren’t planned in the near future.
“I told the staff we’re going to be flexible. We’re going to be nimble. We’re going to have to make changes as necessary based on the actual experience of not only what’s going on here at the zoo, but what’s going on out in the public world in this community,” Verret said.
In April, zoo officials announced increased safety measures for their employees and animals after a tiger in New York tested positive for the coronavirus. Employees overseeing mammals were given personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves and were encouraged to practice social distancing. These measures were already in place for primates and other mammals. Training sessions with some animals also were modified.
Despite the stressful time for people, Dominique Keller, chief veterinarian and director of animal health and wellness for the zoo, said their furry residents have remained in good health.
After living in relative isolation, Keller said some animals such as meerkats and chimpanzees are hyper-aware of human behavior, including zoo staff.
“I’d like to think they’ve missed us, but I’ll be frank and say no,” she said.
Even with health-protective modifications in place, there are new additions to the zoo family that will likely draw big, though socially distanced crowds. Angela, a 7-month-old western lowland gorilla, was spotted clinging to her mother’s back. A litter of four meerkat pups were active Wednesday morning, scurrying around and popping in and out of their burrows.
For families who braved the heat, the reprieve of an outdoor adventure was worth it.
Rachel Ngo, 37, of Sherman Oaks said her family have memberships for the zoo but had to buy general admission tickets because reservations were already full. Before the pandemic, Ngo said they’d visit the zoo quarterly and loved feeding giraffes. On this day, they were there to celebrate their 2-year-old’s birthday.
“We’ve been trapped inside too long,” said Jamie Pourroy, 32, who was among the first people in line with her 2-year-old daughter, Charlotte. “We just wanted to get out of the house. We’re so happy the zoo’s back open.”