© Jozas Cernius / WWF-UK

Hanniah Tariq is the Founder and CEO of High Altitude Sustainability Pakistan and has over 15 years of experience in international development and social research.

In the wake of new safety concerns, zoos and sanctuaries have had to adopt strict new policies and extra precautions.

While COVID-19 is affecting national economies, businesses and non-profit organizations all over the world, animal habitats like wildlife sanctuaries, zoo-based conservation organizations, animal shelters, and traditional zoos are all also being adversely affected. They might be closed to the public, but behind closed doors, carers and vets are striving to look after their charges.

The abrupt halt of income from visitors, unavailability of cash reserves to weather an unprecedented interruption, and high running costs are major problems for these organizations. Many are having trouble keeping their animals fed and paying salaries to the remaining staff. As Rebecca Blanchard, Media Manager, Zoological Society of London, London Zoo, says the staff has to continue working as,

“18,000 animals all need feeding and looking after every single day, no matter what’s happening in the rest of the world.”

In the wake of new safety concerns, zoos and sanctuaries have had to drastically adopt new policies and extra precautions. In April 2020, the Bronx Zoo confirmed that five tigers and three lions tested positive for the coronavirus, most likely from an asymptomatic zookeeper.

Accordingly, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) updated zoos and sanctuaries about increased safety measures, including wearing masks and goggles to protect animals and keeping a distance of six feet whenever possible. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) issued similar guidelines to avoid transmission to animals. Around the world, only skeleton staff, and essential veterinary and animal care team members are operating in most animal homes.

In Pakistan, zoos are dealing with similar issues. Speaking of the Lahore Zoo, according to Badar Munir, Punjab Honorary Game Warden, “Government departments are taking serious notice, and all safety measures including maintaining a safe distance, using sanitizers, wearing masks, and suits are in place.” He also confirmed the testing of all staff that comes in close contact with animals (around 100 in the department). Additionally, animal behaviour and conditions are being closely monitored and 

recorded in a log sheet, including temperature, behaviour, problems, food intake, etc. with protocols to isolate animals who may display changes.

Animal carers from around the world have made some interesting observations about changing behaviour patterns. Newfound privacy has also had some unexpected benefits for species propagation. In Ocean Park, Hong Kong, a resident panda, Ying Ying, finally mated after
ten years when the park closed late January. In April, the Zoological Officer at Trinidad and Tobago’s Emperor Valley Zoo reported that a 100-year-old South American river turtle nested and laid eggs on land due to reduced foot and road traffic near the zoo. One clear takeaway from these behaviour patterns is that guidelines must be developed by stakeholders to ensure consideration for animals in man-made habitats. Codes of conduct on things as the restriction of noise in certain areas, for example, could be formulated and signed by patrons before entering parks.

It is also important to note that most animals in zoos have largely grown up in captivity and
are accustomed to being around people. They’re not wild animals in the conventional way as they have been raised in a different social environment and need interaction. It is not surprising that “quite a few animals get noticeably depressed in the winter months every year when we have fewer guests, and perk up in the spring when we get busy,” notes an employee at the Rainforest Adventure Zoo, Tennessee.

The World Economic Forum reports that around the world, the

“most intelligent and social animals including gorillas, otters, and meerkats – are missing the attention of humans.”

The crisis has consequently come at an “emotional cost for certain animals” according to zookeepers at the Berlin Zoo. One would expect all animals would thrive without human presence, but more social animals seem to be struggling. Zookeepers at The Rainforest Adventure Zoo in Tennessee observe that: 



“for a lot of our animals, having the ability to interact with guests is extremely important. Even for primates to be able to play with kids through the glass, they are missing out on a lot of enrichment.”

Koalas at Kangaroo Island Nature Reserve in Australia need the keepers to give them ‘cuddles’ as they are used to being picked up by visitors. Zookeepers at the Oakland Zoo report that

“the parrots miss the crowds. They love flirting with the guests, and now they’re demanding a lot more attention from us.”

At the Royev Ruchey Nature Park in Russia, carers have had to set up screens playing cartoons outside the cages of chimpanzees who were showing signs of depression. Jungle Island, Florida is providing orangutans with extra puzzles to fill the void of not having daily interactions with park guests.

Primary care, including feeding of dependent animals, has come under immense pressure in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic restrictions. While appealing for donations, Dartmoor Zoo, UK, disclosed that it cannot look after its 250 animals, some of which are endangered. According to the President of Oakland Zoo,

“It costs roughly US$ 800,000 a year to feed the animals and US$ 24 million a year to run the zoo. Finding that money, while attendance is zero, is a daunting task.”

David Trigg, Liaison Officer at Fraser Coast Wildlife Sanctuary, revealed that staff and volunteers spent their US$750 federal government stimulus payment on food for the animals and do not know if they can keep feeding the 300 animals. In other parts of the world more drastic measures are being considered. In April, the BBC reported that the administration at Neumünster Zoo, Germany has been forced to consider euthanizing animals or make lists of animals to be slaughtered in order to feed others as a last resort. The non-profit Wolf Sanctuary of Pennsylvania, largely relying on revenues from visitors, has been closed since March 2020 and feeling the pinch. According to Michelle Mancini, Education Coordinator,

“Each wolf can eat up to five pounds of raw meat per day,”

costing thousands of dollars a week. The Philadelphia Zoo introduced a Spring Back Fund on its website to animal care and maintenance.

Newsweek reported that the life of wild animals on the fringes of urban areas during the early days of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown improved around the world. Residents
in many suburbs reported an increase in the number of sightings of wild animals, probably encouraged by the absence of pedestrians, traffic, and noise pollution.

More good news for wildlife has come in the form of the spotlight thrown on illegal and unregulated wildlife trade markets. Following the outbreak, poaching and illegal wildlife
trade, identified by WWF as the second-largest direct threat to global biodiversity after habitat destruction have come under extreme fire. China has introduced a ban on the trade and consumption of wildlife to prevent future pandemics. A GlobeScan survey of 5,000 respondents from Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, revealed that 93 per cent of respondents support actions by their governments to eliminate illegal and unregulated wildlife trade markets. Countries around the world are under similar pressure to adopt regulations.

© Anton Vorauer / WWF

However, some wild animals may be in considerable danger, according to Dr Hobaiter, who manages a Primate Research Programme in Uganda.

“We know that chimpanzees definitely, and probably all apes, are very vulnerable to coronavirus,” she informed gravely, adding, “We are quite worried that if this gets into the wild populations, we could lose thousands or hundreds of thousands of apes in the next six months.”

In Pakistan, snow leopard conservation efforts have been indirectly affected due to the economic slowdown in the US. The future of the Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization’s (BWCDO) two-decades of successful work is in limbo because of the economic ramifications of the pandemic globally. Speaking to The News, Ghulam Muhammad, CEO, BWCDO, warned that this

“may prove detrimental for the conservation campaign.”

It is important to note that unlike conventional zoos, rescue centres care for abandoned, abused, rescued, or orphaned animals and must be supported in such times. More zoos will need to shift to this model to continue operations in an ethical manner once we step into
a post-COVID-19 world. There are many tragic closures around the world due to a lack of funds, leaving a gap in rescued animal welfare. The Wildlife Waystation, a 43-year old wildlife sanctuary in Los Angeles, California, for example, was forced to close its doors recently due to an “insurmountable need for funding to meet current standards.”

In addition to seeking donations, many zoos are testing alternate revenue streams. Scotland’s Edinburgh Zoo is fundraising via pre-purchased tickets and webcams of animals. Their audience has increased from 96,000 viewers to 400,000 since March last year. In Oakland, the zoo qualified for an eight-week loan as part of the Federal Paycheck Protection Program, which is enabling the zoo to maintain a full-time crew of keepers, veterinarians, and vet staff. But it still leaves them short. To help cover part of the remaining shortfall, the zoo launched

a subscription-based Facebook feed, which offers viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the animals and staff. The association of French Zoos has already put in a request for a ‘Marshall Plan’, referring to the emergency financial initiatives put in place to relaunch the European economy after the Second World War.

Clearly conventional zoos have to evolve with better support systems for animals in need like sanctuaries and reserves. More needs to be done in accomodating and helping out animals now more than ever because the world needs empathy. We as people need to make sure we care for animals and there should be rescue and care centres that help all animals in need.

© Martin Harvey / WWF