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Creature care: Zoo staff stayed busy with animal duties during shutdown

Carnivore Team supervisor Toni Esparza cleans the snow leopard exhibit at the ABQ BioPark Zoo on Aug. 9. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Caring for the various species at the zoo is a 24-hour job.

When the ABQ BioPark Zoo was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, the number of visitors stopped, yet the job for the many zookeepers moved into overdrive.

“The care and activities continued for both the zookeepers and animals,” says Stephanie Stowell, acting director of ABQ BioPark Zoo. “With no visitors for the animals to see, the zoo staff stepped up to keep them busy with activities.”

This included one-on-one training, as well as routine medical checkups.

Stowell says precautions were also taken to ensure that the animals didn’t contract COVID-19.

She says the staff, working with lions, tigers and the gorillas and such, were tested often to make sure the environment was safe.

“Because they (gorillas) are so close to humans in makeup, we put extra precaution with them,” Stowell says. “We wanted everyone to be safe on all sides.”

During a walk-through on Aug. 9, staff members including Toni Esparza were hard at work getting the exhibits cleaned.

Esparza is the Carnivore Team supervisor, and she was busy getting the snow leopard exhibit ready for the animal.

“She has to climb into all the spaces the snow leopard will go,” Stowell says. “Sometimes it’s a workout for the staff.”

The zoo staff continues to provide online content for visitors. During the five months with no public visitors, the staff would put up videos of the animals.

“They’ve missed having an audience,” Stowell says of the animals. “The first few days of having visitors to the zoo has been extraordinary. It’s a welcomed addition to the space.”

A visit to the zoo comes with changes, which are in place to make the area COVID-safe.

• Indoor areas, including Penguin Chill, the reptile and crocodile buildings and Life on a Limb, remain closed.

• High-touch attractions such as the carousel and trains will not operate.

• Daily public feedings and shows that draw crowds are temporarily canceled.

• Limited tickets will be available and guests are asked to reserve their tickets in advance online to secure their spot.

• Visitors will have a 30-minute window to arrive for their scheduled visit. Timed ticketing will allow for proper social distancing.

• Face masks are required.

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