Bonnie Baird is the person with all the answers to your questions about what’s been going on at the zoo while we’ve been away.
As an animal welfare scientist at the Woodland Park Zoo, she’s been studying what happens when you take the public out of the equation. And this month, as the facility reopened to visitors for the first time since mid-March when it closed due to coronavirus restrictions, she’s studying what happens when you bring visitors back.
“For being such an animal nerd, it’s been so special for me, just selfishly, to have one-on-one time with each animal,” Baird said earlier this month as she stood near the gorilla enclosure where new baby Kitoko was on display.
“We’re trying to figure out what animals are maybe a little bit more uncomfortable or need a little bit more time to adjust back to this point,” she said. “This is new, right? To go from normal zoo operations with lots of guests, then all of a sudden one day there’s nobody, and for months. And in the wild, when it’s quiet, that means it’s dangerous really. So this is all very, very weird. And it’s interesting to see how they’re all responding to that, especially now that all of a sudden we’re back.”
The zoo opened to the public on July 1, and will be limited to 25% capacity until King County moves to the next phase, which may be some time. Because of this, there were long stretches of the zoo that were empty of visitors, a rare treat at a 92-acre facility that, pre-pandemic times, can see around 8,000 people a day.
Visitors are asked to buy their tickets — with a corresponding time slot — online to reduce contact and to follow all social-distancing guidelines. Masks are mandatory for all except for the smallest children. Some exhibits are closed because it is impossible to maintain social distancing within or because certain animals may be susceptible to coronavirus, an interesting twist on the usual discussions about transmission.
In general, though, most of the animals are out observing and sometimes interacting with visitors. The penguins, always looking for attention, are super happy people are back. Baird also found that even some of the shyest or most aloof creatures at the zoo, like warthogs, appeared to be curious to see visitors.
“Some of the animals are a little bit more startled, like giraffes,” Baird said. “Typically, they’re very nervous animals, just in general in the wild, which is funny because they’re giant. But everything’s very scary for a giraffe. So when I was here by myself in uniform, I’d walk up on the public path and they would all just stop and stare at me for a really long time, like half an hour. ‘Oh my goodness. Danger.’ ”
On the day the zoo reopened, she found the giraffes to be playful and engaged with visitors — albeit from a distance.
The same was true of the many, many children running around the grounds of the zoo.
Six-year-old Harper Stewart, who was visiting with her 5-year-old brother, Anders, found the orangutans to be especially interesting after “seeing orangutans eat human food,” she said.
She pulled out her phone and thumbed through a few pictures: “So this one I think was eating chips. And this guy was eating an orange.”
Two-year-old Lila Yurtoglu was content to slide around on the smooth back of a bronze hippopotamus sculpture. To the rest of us that may not be very exciting, but Lila hasn’t had a lot to do over the past few months and she was having a great time.
“It’s a lot of fun being here,” Lila’s mom, Basak Yurtoglu, said. “(The lockdown) was really hard. We had lots of activities before, like music classes, gym classes. After the lockdown, we’ve just been walking around the neighborhood.”
Yurtoglu said she felt safe with the guidelines in place and would be back.
“Once a week at least,” she said with what might have been a smile under her mask.
Woodland Park Zoo is open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily with the last entry at 4 p.m. Timed-entry tickets must be reserved in advance at zoo.org/visit and are $22.95 for adults, $13.95 for children ages 3-12 and $20.95 for seniors; $2 discount for those with disabilities. All visitors ages 5 and up must wear masks. The zoo suggests children ages 3 to 5 wear masks, but it is not required. Children 2 and under have no mask requirement.