AUSTIN, Texas — For the past couple of months, the Austin Zoo's staff has been working non-stop. But, while it planned to reopen on May 18, new state orders released that very day have forced the zoo to delay until at least May 29.
According to Scott Chambers, director of animal care and veterinary services, the zoo became a quarantine zone in itself.
Once animals started contracting the coronavirus, Chambers and the veterinary team at the zoo had to come up with ways to protect both the animals and the guests.
"It was like two months of non-stop work for us," Chambers said. "Constant emails back and forth, 'Oh, this animal caught it here, here's what it did to this animal.'"
Facility employees have installed orange plastic fencing to enforce greater social distancing between COVID-19-susceptible animals and people.
"We have to obviously bump everybody off that six-feet distance that they recommend with us keeping six feet away," Chambers said. "We have got to try and do the same with the animals to make sure you can't get too close to them."
The animals are still very visible, though. The fencing, while guiding visitors down a one-way path, does not stand in front of every exhibit.
For example, the wolf-hybrids and tortoise exhibits don't have additional orange fencing. From what Chambers understands, reptiles cannot contract the virus, and the exhibits for animals like wolf-hybrids are already far enough away from the trails in the zoo.
In April, the Austin Zoo took in another rescue: Zulema the white Bengal tiger.
Zulema arrived after a drug bust by the Drug Enforcement Agency in South Texas. The tiger is susceptible to the coronavirus and as the newest resident at the Austin Zoo, Chambers is worried people will gather near her enclosure and break social distancing guidelines.
Zulema's exhibit does not have any orange fencing around it. Chambers said she will probably move around enough that she won't be in front of any one guest for too long.
"Hopefully, for now, this is far enough away," Chambers said. "She is super playful and running around that she's not going to stay in one spot very long. We're hoping people just get a good glimpse of her, really enjoy her, take some pictures and move on."
Other big cat enclosures do have orange fencing in addition to the black, metal barrier that's been at the Austin Zoo for years.
Other policies in place include a mask requirement for guests over the age of two, no feeding or petting animals, and tickets must be purchased online. No tickets will be sold at the front entrance; however, guests can buy masks if they did not bring one of their own.
The zoo said it will be in touch with everyone who purchased tickets before Monday's new orders.
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