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Zoos Are Reopening, But Some Animals Are More Excited For Visitors Than Others


After months shut down from the pandemic, America's zoos are finally starting to reopen. Both the Bronx and Smithsonian zoos are welcoming visitors, and soon will the Oakland Zoo. Many of us have missed the animals, but have they missed us? I wouldn't be lion (ph) if I told you the big cats don't seem to care less. Those long furry critters in the water, though, have seemed otterly (ph) bored. And zebras, why the long faces?

Amber Paczkowski is an animal keeper at the Oakland Zoo. Welcome to the program.

AMBER PACZKOWSKI: Hi. Thank you very much for having me, Leila.

FADEL: Glad you're here. So your zoo reopens on Wednesday. You've been closed since March. Are the animals excited?

PACZKOWSKI: The animals don't know it's coming, so it's hard to say that they're excited. But there are actually several different species that have a large enough social group and enough space that they haven't really had to depend on interacting with the guests to really get that social need or need that mental stimulation. So our bison herd - we've got over 15 of them now. We've had several calves born as well, and they have several acres to roam across, so they're not quite as necessarily engaged with the public. And our big cats, man, they're just like your cats at home. They want to sleep. They want to do what they want. And when they want dinner, that's when they really like you. But otherwise, they don't seem to really care quite as much.

FADEL: It's been months. You know, how have the animals reacted to not having human visitors? And how do you think they'll react to having them once again?

PACZKOWSKI: Several of the animals are definitely pretty bored. Our macaws, who are highly social animals, you know, a few of them used to spend a lot more time in our public areas watching people, chatting, seeing what's going on. But since they don't have as much, let's say, amusement on that side of their exhibit, they do tend to spend a lot more time now in our holding areas, where they can see the keepers walking around in our service spaces so that they can get that amusement still from watching people do things.

FADEL: I feel them, the boredom of the pandemic. You know, so many of us have tried to figure out what to do with all this time that we used to socialize or go out. What have you and your colleagues done to keep the animals from being bored?

PACZKOWSKI: Well, we've thought about letting them have Facebook accounts, but we decided that was a terrible idea.


PACZKOWSKI: But we have taken a lot of extra steps to help make them better enrichment items. So enrichments are things that help keep the animals busy. It can be anything from hiding their food in new toys or devices that help keep them engaged or giving them new scents or piles of dirt to roll in. And so we've really increased how much enrichment items we give them, from piles of compost in the bison or zebra exhibits to hanging food in new and interesting ways for the gibbons. And even some animals, like our chimps, have enjoyed watching us scroll through Facebook and see what's going on.

FADEL: So no sourdough and puzzles for the animals.

PACZKOWSKI: I don't think you'd want to eat that sourdough. That's for sure.


FADEL: So what are you most looking forward to about reopening?

PACZKOWSKI: I'm most looking forward to seeing how the animals react, you know. And we've actually been pretty surprised by some of the ones that have seemed to really miss the public. Our otters aren't a surprise. They love watching kids through the glass, so the keepers have taken the steps to sit and have lunch out by their windows. But one of the more surprising ones is actually our zebras, as well.

FADEL: Really?

PACZKOWSKI: Our elephant viewing area is right near their exhibit. And one zebra in particular was so enthralled in watching these volunteers who were observing the elephants that he would run down to actually knee (ph) his keeper, take some food and then run back up to continue watching to see what these volunteers were doing. So I think a lot of us are really excited to see what these animals are going to do after this huge period of quiet and calm all day to having all of these lovely guests back.

FADEL: Amber Paczkowski is an animal keeper at the Oakland Zoo. Thanks for speaking with us.

PACZKOWSKI: Thank you so much for having me, and I hope everyone is around to support their local zoos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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