Every year, millions of visitors head to zoos across Australia to look at the animals stuck in their enclosures, but with many people now in lockdown themselves, animals are missing their human admirers, and zoos and wildlife parks are losing crucial income.
Strict government measures to control the coronavirus pandemic have forced shops, restaurants and entertainment venues across Australia to close, so zookeepers have been going the extra mile for the animals in the absence of visitors.
Sticking to daily routines is important for the animals, zoo owners say, so exhibitions and shows have been continuing on schedule in many zoos despite empty seats.
“The animals love and miss our zoo visitors,” said Terri Irwin, owner of Australia Zoo on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
“They are used to large groups of people admiring them and telling them that they are beautiful and amazing.”
Accustomed to hugs from guests, Irwin said some of the koalas have been following staff around for extra cuddles, while other animals have been taken for walks or allowed to wander around the zoo gardens.
“It’s more important now than ever, that every animal receives extra attention,” said Irwin, who began managing Australia Zoo alongside her late husband Steve Irwin – known as ‘The Crocodile Hunter’ in 1992.
In Melbourne, many of the primates enjoy watching and mimicking zoo visitors, said Jenny Gray, chief executive of Zoos Victoria, so in the absence of people, staff have been providing “items that keep them busy and encourage their natural behaviours”.
“For example, our two female Orang-utans, Kiani and Gabby, at Melbourne Zoo often climb up high, to a platform where they can see visitors through a glassed viewing area, and then mimic what they see visitors doing,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Gabby often tries to look inside visitors’ bags and Kiani copies anyone cleaning. So keepers have been playing movies on the TV screen in the visitor space that the orangutans can see, and have continued to provide the orangutans with enrichment items along with additional keeper interactions.”
At Werribee Open Range Zoo, the lions were given giant balls filled with hay and smeared with zebra dung, which they “investigate using their natural behaviours” Gray said.
While the public may not be able to see these activities in person, they can watch feeding time, playtime and other enrichment activities on the park’s livestreams.
Highlights have so far included penguins enjoying an inflatable mini bouncing castle, zebras and giraffes playing together during special visits, a reptile “swim gym” and the adventures of three adorable snow leopard cubs.