For the first time in months, visitors to the Los Angeles Zoo are entering through its towering doors to coo over meerkat pups and baby gorillas, ending the zoo’s longest closure in its history.
But after being shuttered for 166 consecutive days while the COVID-19 pandemic raged, the zoo reopened with some major changes Wednesday. Perhaps most noticeably, far fewer guests are wandering the 133-acre zoo; the facility is accepting only 1,200 daily visitors, compared to its usual 4,000-13,000.
About 400 are expected to be at the zoo at any time. Guests, including members, must pre-purchase timed-entry tickets to enter. Those tickets are offered in two-week blocks, a policy that Denise Verret, the zoo’s director and CEO, said will allow administrators to adapt to the fluid nature of the pandemic.
“That just allows us to monitor the experience, make adjustments if necessary and to monitor what’s actually going on from a COVID perspective,” she said at a news conference minutes after the zoo opened on Wednesday.
The zoo is not holding large events, Verret explained. Some activities and exhibits — including the aviary and the children’s zoo caves — are also closed to decrease the chances of coronavirus transmission. All guests, including children older than 2, are required to wear face coverings and maintain physical distance from other groups.
Additionally, some of the zoo’s smaller corridors, where social distancing is difficult, have been converted to one-way paths. Hand sanitizer stations are a common sight, as are staff members who are present to make sure health protocols are being followed.
But though the first day of the reopening featured several adjustments and wasn’t met with the usual number of guests, those who came seemed excited to return, some saying they hadn’t been to the zoo since they were children.
Yolanda Dubuclet was one of those guests, explaining that she came “basically just to get out. It’s the … safest you could [be] without being with more people.”
While humans might be going a bit stir-crazy from staying mostly at home, zoo officials said the animals have remained mostly unaffected — aside, perhaps, from an increase in the creatures’ curiosity toward people.
“The most striking thing is that there hasn’t really been a change in behavior or welfare or health that I’ve noticed in the nearly five months that I’ve been here,” Dominique Keller, the zoo’s chief veterinarian and director of animal wellness programs, said Wednesday.
“I’d like to think that they have [missed us], but it’s hard to know. I think most animals didn’t,” she added with a laugh.
But the zoo itself has experienced more of an impact. Verret said the city-owned facility has lost $11.7 million since its closure and encouraged people interested in supporting the zoo’s mission to do so through donations. She added that the zoo is the second last in the state to open.
As the zoo seeks to attract members back inside its gates, Verret hopes that the facility helps give families an opportunity to connect, also pointing out that, in a time of distance learning, some pods of students might take trips to the zoo as an outdoor activity.
“Part of the zoo reopening, for me, allows some normalcy to return for people, to have an opportunity to come out in a safe environment, to see animals up close, to enrich their lives,” she said. “That’s what I think the zoo does.”
And on opening day, many parents did bring their children. Gabriela Velasquez came to the zoo with her 1-year-old daughter, Elena, in tow.
“I haven’t been here since I was little, so I’m looking at this [with] fresh eyes,” she said. “Honestly, I’m just expecting a good time.”