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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Zoo Boise Director On COVID-19: Yes, The Animals Do Know Something's 'Different'

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Zoo Boise
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True, the zoos of the world remain closed to the public due to the pandemic, but caring for the animals has taken on extra urgency. In fact, zoo caregivers need to take extreme caution to protect animals and staff, due to COVID-19.

Zoo Boise, which has been closed since mid-March, is no exception; and while there is no tentative date on when the public might return, zoo officials are working on a blueprint outlining what a reopening might look like.

Zoo Boise Director Gene Peacock visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the surreal experience of walking through a zoo with no visitors each day, the possibilities of a reopening plan, and how indeed some of the animals have noticed a significant change.

“You could really, really tell the animals knew something was different.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice.

The list of the things that we miss during this pandemic is very long, and how we long to visit some of those places on our list grows with every passing day, which brings us to Zoo Boise, closed throughout this pandemic. So, we thought we should spend some time this morning with Gene Peacock, Director of Zoo Boise. He joins us live via Zoom this morning. Gene, good morning.

GENE PEACOCK: Good morning. Happy to be here.

PRENTICE: What a surreal setting it must be for you each morning, to walk through the zoo with just you and your staff and the animals.

PEACOCK: It's very peaceful in a way, but it's also very strange. You have grounds, especially now that the trees, the vegetation's coming back. It's really nice around grounds.

PRENTICE: I don't want to romanticize this too much, but is it possible that the animals miss us?

PEACOCK: I think it depends on the animal.

Well, yes, yes. That first week in particular, you could really, really tell the animals knew something was different. They get so used to seeing so many people. For one day or two days, it was not a big deal, but as it stretched out, you could really tell a difference. And the animals, every time we would walk by, were like, "What are you doing?"

Some of the animals that are more social, when you walk around the zoo, they really watch what you're doing, and they really want to interact with you. In particular...

PRENTICE: So, which animals are more social?

PEACOCK: Well, in particular are two panda cubs that are up towards the front of the zoo; every time you walk by, they want to go, "So, what's going on? Where are you going? What are you doing?" So, they're very interactive. And surprisingly, our tiger Diana. When she sees people, in particular the staff at the zoo, she'll go hide and all you see is a pair of eyes or ears, just watching you and...

It can be kind of unnerving, but then he also wants to play. And then, our African wild dogs, every time somebody walks by, they want to see what you're doing, and what's going on. Those three groups of animals in particular, they really notice when somebody walks by.

PRENTICE: Well, we all saw the news, a big cat in a New York Zoo being infected by coronavirus. It's rare, but it's a real thing. So, what kind of precautions do you have to add to keep everyone and all the animals safe?

PEACOCK: Once this came about, before that even happened... that was at, I believe, the Bronx Zoo in New York.

Before this ever came about, we had already instituted some protocols. Our vet on-site, she's very knowledgeable about that. But at the very beginning of this, even before we closed, we had keepers in masks. And then once we heard about that, we added face shields and gloves, monitor if you have symptoms, stay home.

So, we implemented that very, very early on, have really put those precautions in place to protect our entire collection.

PRENTICE: I'm looking at Mayor McLean's blueprint for reopening Boise, and I see that Zoo Boise falls into Stage Four...

Which would be the final of four stages. It says, "Zoo Boise will open with a managed visitor flow." Can you give me a sense of what that looks like?

PEACOCK:

Well, what we're doing is we're actually developing that plan right now. Once we open, we're looking at a way to sell timed tickets.

So, you can buy your tickets online, and then you'll have a specific time to come in, and we'll have a flow where you come through the zoo, it'll be a one-way path, make a circular route through the zoo so that everybody will get to see everything, but it'll be timed, we want to make sure people practice social distancing. And then it'll be a path that goes through the zoo so that they circulate, see the entire zoo, but we all have our entrance separate from our exit.

We're really working out those plans and what it's going to look like, and once we have this solidified, we're going to make sure we let folks know.

PRENTICE: Best case, might that happen, what, end of June? Before the Fourth of July, best case?

Gene Peacock: We don't like to say when the time will be because that's really up to when the stages happen.

There's a radio. Give me one second.

PRENTICE: You bet.

PEACOCK: Copy that.

So, what that's based on are the metrics to advance from one stage to the other, or to the next one, as the governor has said, four. So, that's what we go by. Whenever the metrics are met and we're told we're going to be moving to stage four, is when we'll pull that trigger.

PRENTICE: What did you have on your...

PEACOCK: Hang on.

PRENTICE: Got to grab that radio, you bet.

PEACOCK: Go for Gene.

Copy that.

All right. Sorry about that.

Radio would blow your ears off.

PRENTICE: No, it's okay. What did you have on your calendar for this year that you've had to postpone or cancel?

PEACOCK:  The main things we've had to postpone... In early April, we had our annual Egg-stravaganza.

And that is one of our biggest days of the year.

We have several thousand people come in to the zoo. The zoo was already closed by the time that date was on us, and there just wasn't a safe way to do it. So, as of right now, that's our single biggest event we've canceled.

PRENTICE: The zoo always teases us a little bit, those of us who walk the Greenbelt and see our friends poking over the fence.

I'm assuming that it's still all hands on deck inside the zoo for you and your colleagues. This is essential that you're there, yes?

PEACOCK: Yeah, yes, it's all hands on deck, but no, we don't have everybody here. We put a staged plan in effect. We have three teams of staff, and we have two of those teams rotate five days on and five days off. And so, we have two of those teams that rotate, and we have a third team that's comprised similarly that we have at home, and they're in case a whole team goes down, we have qualified people that have been away from the zoo and not exposed that can come in and fill in that role.

So, we've got a limited number of people at the zoo, actually doing the day-to-day stuff, and then a lot of the folks working from home, as well.

It makes a tough week.

PRENTICE:

I'm guessing that you're as anxious as we are, even to give us those timed tickets. But that first week or weekend, whenever that is, will be a big deal for all of us.

PEACOCK: I hope so.

We want people to understand that just for the safety of our guests and our staff and our animal collection, we're not going to be able to just open the gates and let people come in as it was before. So, we just want to make sure we have everything set up so that it's a quality experience, a fun experience. That's really what we're kind of working on right now, and getting that put together, and...

What timing. So, let me take this call, okay? Hang on. This is a roofer.

Sorry about that. We're having some contractors put some new roofs on buildings.

PRENTICE: Okay. Well, goodness know… you’ve got to have a lot of good roofs at the zoo.

PEACOCK: And it's good timing, because we don't have the visitors in here.

So, those guys can get in and get the work done, and don't have to worry about all the extra precautions with the visitors.

PRENTICE: Gene Peacock has one of the best jobs in town. That said, it's one of the hardest jobs in town, and he's Director of Zoo Boise. Gene, can't wait to see you in person with all your friends.

PEACOCK: Yeah. We're really looking forward to getting people back out here.

And see the animals. We miss our visitors, we miss our members, we miss the public, and it's just great to come out here. It's a very relaxing place.

PRENTICE: Well, I'd love to share some of that when it's all safe for all of us.

PEACOCK: Yeah, that's what we're hoping, is we can share that and this is a fun place for families to come and really kind of get back in the swing of things. Know being shut inside and having things closed is tough on everybody and so, we're looking forward to when we can do that for people.

PRENTICE: Take care, be safe, be well, and we'll talk to you soon. Gene Peacock, thank you.

PEACOCK: Thank you, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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