Cisco the hawk has lived at Woodland Park Zoo since 1988, but he’d never spent time with the river otters before. And at first, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to.

The Harris’s hawk shrank back as an animal keeper soothed him, bringing him closer to the glass tank as the otters frolicked. He relaxed eventually, content to watch the otters play as a brown bear napped on a rock in an adjacent exhibit.

The animals don’t usually visit each other’s exhibits, but it’s one way keepers have switched up usual routines since the coronavirus pandemic closed Seattle’s zoo in mid-March.

Cisco is one of the zoo’s “ambassador animals” that interacts with guests in educational programs. They’ve been spending time with the otters, penguins and other animals that miss the human interactions guests add to their days.

Life continues as usual for the zoo’s nearly 1,000 animals. But the closed gates have led to steep financial losses, and there’s no set reopening date yet as Washington eases into the four-phase process.

The otters become playful after seeing people and Cisco, a Harris’s hawk, in their indoor exhibit. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
The otters become playful after seeing people and Cisco, a Harris’s hawk, in their indoor exhibit. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

The zoo’s finances are “operating in the unknown,” Chief Financial Officer Michele Smith said. The nonprofit lost $1.9 million in March and more than $2 million in April,  and losses are expected to be worse in the crucial summer months. The ZooTunes concert series was canceled, as was a fundraiser event in February.

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A relief fund has raised more than $830,000 from nearly 3,000 donors as of Tuesday. The zoo also received $5.3 million in early May from a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, which so far has kept it from furloughing or laying off staff. Smith expects the zoo will have to “scale down” the staff of 361 this summer.

“We’re going to have to change the way we do business as well as our staffing,” she said.

Most of the zoo’s $45 million operating budget comes from admissions, membership and events. Another large source is funding from the City of Seattle and King County.

None of the animals has shown signs of COVID-19 infection, director of animal care Nancy Hawkes said. But after five tigers and three lions in the Bronx Zoo tested positive for the virus in April, the animal care staff is taking extra precautions around big cats, using face covers and social distancing during training.

“When we’re doing training sessions and positive reinforcement training, we want to be able to get pretty close to the animals,” Hawkes said. “Keepers have to find creative ways to maintain animals’ attention during a training session, even though they’re not as close.”

They’ve also postponed some routine medical care, including most procedures that require blood samples. Periodic testing for infections or parasites can be done using fecal samples, without direct contact with the animals.

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Staff protocols have changed, too. They’ve increased cleaning and disinfection protocols and wearing masks around zoo grounds. Animal care and veterinary staff are split into “A” and “B” teams, and each works half the week without overlap with the other group. If a staff member tested positive for the virus and their team had to self-isolate, the other team could still work.

But even as the world outside has changed drastically, most animals don’t notice the lack of people, Hawkes said, with a few exceptions observed by the animal welfare scientist on staff.

“Our gorillas and orangutans do seem to notice,” she said. “Our giraffes seem to notice there’s less activity. Our penguins’ swimming pattern has changed.”

Besides adventures with ambassador animals, keepers are able to spend more time with the animals and try new enrichment strategies, offering toys and branches of live plants for stimulation.

“We do a lot with scents, different smells, getting animals to explore different parts of their habitats,” Hawkes said.

The baby gorilla born in early March, recently named Kitoko, has started teething and curiously watching his older relatives tear banana leaves, Hawkes said. This week, though, he’s recovering from a head injury suffered Saturday during an altercation among family members.

The zoo has submitted a reopening plan to local officials and is working on social distancing and sanitation protocols, Smith said. They’re not sure on a date yet, but they hope visitors will come when gates open again.

“The importance of us reopening safely is great, because 40% of our budget is attendance or revenue coming in from the gate,” she said.