Zoos coming out of hibernation

Philadelphia Zoo Sebastopol goslings

Sebastopol goslings are pictured with their mother. (Philadelphia Zoo)

As the Philadelphia region gradually reopens after being shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic, at least one truth has emerged: people really want to go to the zoo.

The region’s largest and most popular zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo, has announced it will open to the public on July 9, opening to members three days before that. Advanced tickets are required — no walk-up purchases — and the number of people allowed in the zoo will be restricted to one third of its normal capacity.

Enclosed facilities, like the primate reserve and the reptile house, will be closed, as will the carousel, swan boats, and WildWorks rope attraction. Food options will be limited and guests will be allowed to bring their own food.

Other, smaller zoos in the area have already opened or are opening this week. Demand has been “overwhelming” according to Mark Shafer, of the Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington, Del.

The Brandywine Zoo is operated by the state of Delaware as part of its park system, and is fairly small: only five acres compared to the Philadelphia Zoo’s 42 acres. But its fans are fierce. Shafer says he has seen a surge in new membership in the last couple months, and a campaign to raise $35,000 by November hit its target six months early.

“I’ve been amazed and so delighted with the passion of the community in Wilmington,” said Shafer. “It’s not just Wilmington. This is the Delaware zoo. We get people from downstate Delaware who make the trek to see the zoo.”

Family enjoying the Brandywine Zoo. (Courtesy of Brandwyine Zoo)

The Brandywine reopened in mid-June with restrictions to avoid spreading the coronavirus: tickets must be bought in advance online, and visitors are limited to 100 in the morning and 100 in the afternoon. At noon, the zoo closes for an hour for cleaning.

Anyone over age 13 is required to wear a mask. Food concessions are closed, water fountains are turned off, and only certain bathrooms are available. All indoor facilities, like the barnyard, are closed.

Even with all the restrictions, the zoo has been at capacity on the weekends. And it’s expanding. Shafer says the zoo’s forthcoming attraction, “Madagascar,” which has a lemur colony as its centerpiece, is on track to open in September.

The Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, Montgomery County, will open on Friday. Like the Brandywine, it requires time-sensitive tickets to be bought or reserved in advance online, and visitors must wear masks. Expect restrictions, including limits on time you’re allowed inside the zoo and a predetermined path for foot traffic through the zoo’s 16 acres.

“We’ll have barriers set up that will funnel guests from the front half of the zoo to the back half of the zoo and back around again,” said Shaun Rogers, the marketing director of the Elmwood zoo. “So it’s one, straightforward, continuous experience.”

Tickets to Elmwood’s reopening go on sale Wednesday, and Rogers expects a rush of online sales. That expectation is borne out of past experience. In May, while the Elmwood zoo was closed, it staged a drive-thru safari: for $25 a car, visitors were allowed to slowly circle the zoo’s parking lot, stopping at stations where animals were shown off and their handlers explained them.

With downloadable audio tracks that could be played back on a car’s stereo system, it was like a drive-in movie, but with live animals.

“The demand for that event was extremely high,” said Rogers. “We sold out almost immediately.”

The Elmwood Park Zoo cannot continue the drive-thru safari into the summer months, as the asphalt parking lot gets too hot for many of the animals. But it demonstrated that people want to see animals, regardless of the restrictions put upon the experience. Rogers said the zoo has even done a fair amount of business during the shutdown by renting animals to appear in Zoom video meetings.

Rogers said the zoo’s reopening will be gradual, as restrictions are slowly phased-out in accordance with the infection rate of the pandemic. What future phases will look like are still to be determined, he said.

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