Zookeepers Long For Visitors As Gates Remain Closed

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Since the initial lockdown in March due to the spread of coronavirus, the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo has kept its animals fed and its cages clean. Yet, it is still missing one integral part of the operation — visitors.

The effect has been two-fold: diminishing quality of zookeeper education and confused zoo animals used to frequent visitors.

One zookeeping student, Lauren Hayes, said the zoo doesn’t feel alive without the public.

“It is going to be so rewarding after this whole pandemic and being able to be with people and connect people with animals again,” she said.

She is not the only student who lost the ability to lead tours around the property and educate the public, a main goal of the teaching zoo, according to Jonathan Miot, director and associate professor of the zoo.

Normally, students are the main zookeepers and interact with the public on a daily basis, he said. Due to the strict safety protocols and ban on visitors now in place, however, students are receiving only a fraction of the experience they were promised.

The 10-acre property is the only zoo on a college campus accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It has between 80 to 120 student zookeepers each year, Miot said.

Due to coronavirus, Santa Fe College barred visitors from the teaching zoo, including zookeeping students, in March. However, Miot was still able to hire 32 students as temporary part-time zookeepers to maintain the zoo and care for animals.

In June, those students reverted from their part-time jobs as zookeepers to full-time students again, he said.

“There was some loss of knowledge and learning,” Miot said. “Now, we are back on grounds and students can continue to learn the things they need to do and practice to become a zookeeper.”

As of July 7, student zookeepers were allowed back onto the property in shifts to resume some operations while adhering to CDC guidelines, though the zoo was still closed to the public, according to Christina Arnold, the zoo’s office assistant.

As of now, Arnold said, there is still no set date for reopening.

One operation that was halted until further notice was animal training.

Zookeepers train animals, such as otters and primates, to make medical processes easier and less stressful for the animal, said zookeeping student Mary Grasso. The training is enriching for the animals, though after months-long hiatus from practice, many animals will have to be retrained.

Students are working in shifts and are staying socially distant when possible, Grasso said. Mandated mask-wearing, regular sanitation of materials and monitoring of personal health is enforced on the zoo grounds.

In late April over seven lions and tigers tested positive in the Bronx Zoo, proving felines can contract and spread the coronavirus. This puts the teaching zoo’s caracals and ocelots at risk too, among other possible animal carriers for the disease.

“We are putting a lot on them [zookeepers] to make sure they are safe, but also keeping the animals safe,” Miot said.

Prior to the closure, Grasso had been at the zoo every day since May of 2019. Above all, she said visitor education and training experience is what will most prepare her for her life as a zookeeper, which is why she is eager to get back on track before she graduates in December.

“I have a great sense of purpose while I’m in the zoo now, but it makes it greater when I’m in there educating people and telling them the things I know and they are educating me,” she said.

About Ariana Aspuru

Ariana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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