Attracting more than two million visitors each year, the Houston Zoo is among the most-visited zoos in the country and one of the most-attended attractions in the Houston area. But, nearly a month ago, its seemingly endless stream of guests evaporated when the zoo closed its doors to the public amid efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
Yet, the beloved attraction nestled in Hermann Park remains as popular as ever.
During these unprecedented times, and while operating with a skeleton crew, the Houston Zoo is working to cheer up the millions of Houstonians holed up at home. Soon after it closed, the zoo began live-streaming behind-the-scenes animal experiences and exhibit tours, offering viewers a glimpse into the animals’ daily lives.
“It’s the only way that we’re really able to connect with people that would normally be here at the zoo,” said Kevin Hodge, the zoo’s general curator.
So far, the live streams have run the gamut, offering an array of adorable and amazing animal encounters. Zookeepers have taken viewers on a walk through the zoo with Dash the cheetah, into the clouded snow leopard exhibit with rambunctious cubs Nova and Luna, up to the piranha tank during feeding time, behind-the-scenes during a training session with sea lions Jonah and Kamia.
Naked mole rats and tarantulas have also made an appearance.
“In addition to some of the big animals that everyone sees, we also want to bring some of the animals that maybe people miss when they’re here at the zoo so we’re getting an opportunity to highlight some of the lesser known species,” Hodge said.
Those who tune in can expect a zoology lesson on the day’s featured animal and inquisitive viewers can ask the keepers questions in real time.
The zoo streams its new animal encounters series live on Facebook at 11 a.m. each weekday. If you can’t tune in at that hour, worry not. You can watch the videos anytime on the Houston Zoo’s Youtube page.
If the live-streams aren’t enough to curb your craving for animal content, extend your virtual visit with a look at the zoo’s webcams, which offer glimpses into the elephant yard, gorilla habitat, flamingo exhibit and more.
‘You walk around the zoo and it’s kind of like a ghost town’
Nowadays, devoid of its visitors, the zoo is eerily quiet.
“We don’t have anyone here at the zoo and it’s weird,” said Hodge. “You walk around the zoo and it’s kind of like a ghost town.”
The zoo is operating with essential staff only, which includes the keepers who care for the zoo’s more than 5,000 animals. Hodge said nonessential employees are working remotely and the zoo has started to stagger the shifts of the employees that do still come into work.
“We want to make sure to keep all our staff healthy and safe because we need them to take care of the animals.”
Hodge said the animals have noticed the changes.
“It’s been interesting not having anyone here,” Hodge said. “One of the things that I’ve noticed is often, when I’m walking through the zoo, the animals typically don’t pay a lot of attention to you as you’re walking past but now that there aren’t people here, when you walk past they’re a lot more curious now.”
Hodge says keepers are now giving animals more enrichment opportunities to make up for the lack of interaction with visitors.
In certain areas, around primates, bats and cats, employees don personal protective gear and maintain a safe distance from the animals out of an abundance of caution.
“We want to make sure that we don’t give anything to our animals,” Hodge said. “Not only do we want to keep our staff safe but we have to keep the animals healthy too and those groups of animals are the ones that are more susceptible,we believe, for transferring from person to animal.”