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Zoo memories are stitched into the fabric of my “happy family” quilt, as they may also be for yours. I remember gazing with my father at the macaque monkeys as they gazed back and he told of a dream he once had of owning one. I treasure the remembered looks of awe-struck wonder on first my kids’ and then my grandkids’ faces as they took in majestic beasts and exotic animals and birds. Going to the zoo has always been a “for special” trip.

The novel coronaviris and its ensuing global outbreaks of COVID-19 shut zoo gates worldwide and even, in at least one documented case in April at the Bronx Zoo, infected five tigers and three lions that tested positive for the virus. All of the afflicted animals have reportedly recovered since.

Now, months later, those gates to the wild and magnificent are re-opening. In the Treasure Valley, you can visit Zoo Boise which boasts the highest accreditation a zoo can achieve thanks to its high level of animal care and enrichment, ongoing conservation efforts, green practices and guest safety among others. You can also make a trip to Babby Farms in Caldwell, a petting zoo known for up-close and personal animal encounters and baby animals, hence the name.

But, as with every other outing in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, things are a bit different at both places. Social distancing, hand sanitizing and regulated entry numbers are practiced at each place. At Zoo Boise, rules are a bit more stringent and include mandatory mask wearing and online timed ticket purchases only, as well as setting visitors on a circuitous one-way mapped trail for outdoor animal viewing; the indoor exhibits and play areas are still closed.

But here’s the important and best thing to note: at both places, you can get your animal fix, live and in person. And you have to admit, that’s a whole lot better than putting that 15-second video of the sledding bear on an endless loop.

Zoo Boise

At the 14-acre Zoo Boise, the timed entries that allow up to 100 an hour are set up for safety’s sake, said Doug Holloway, Boise Parks and Recreation Director. “It’s to limit personal contact,” Holloway said, adding that social ambassadors are properly placed at certain locations within the zoo not only to answer questions but to make sure there aren’t any bottlenecks. The 800 visitors allowed in over the course of a day is a far cry from before, said Holloway. “We’d easily do that or more than that in an hour in normal times.”

Facial masks are required for all visitors, as per the city of Boise and Ada County COVID-19 mandates, said Holloway. “We provide masks if they don’t have one,” he said. He said there has been minimal pushback on mask wearing. “There’s been a few that just don’t want to wear them. We require it, it’s a county order.” For those who have grumbled about it, Holloway said they usually will take the masks given but “whether they have it on for the entire trip ... in some cases they do, some cases they don’t. We will not make them. But we will get them to at least take the mask with them.” Holloway said while there have been no altercations over the matter yet, there have been “some elevated discussions. We’re becoming more and more confident with the masks and it can — not can, it will — control the spread of the virus and so people are more ready and willing to (wear them).”

As for animal safety, Holloway said the zookeepers are equipped with face guards, gowns and masks — full PPE (personal protective equipment) — whenever they are with the animals. “We have not had any animals with any symptoms. We have a full-time vet and with all the keepers they are monitored very closely,” he said.

The animal human connection

Gene Peacock is Zoo Boise’s director. For those who may be wondering, “Peacock is my real last name,” he said. “I freely admit having the last name ‘Peacock’ has been a real ice breaker working in the zoo world.”

Peacock said the shutdown was as hard on the zoo animals as it was on the visitors who missed seeing them. “It was really strange when we closed,” he said. “The animals — when the people just abruptly stopped coming to the zoo, you could tell they noticed. You particularly noticed it with our tiger, Diana. She would rub on the glass, follow you and want to play,” said Peacock, adding that the primates were also noticeably bereft without human interaction. And the giraffes would peer over their enclosure out at the people walking on the Greenbelt. “Keepers have been giving them extra enrichment,” he said.

At times during the hiatus, it felt other worldly, said Peacock. “For three months the zoo was closed and we had it to ourselves. We realized how much the public is a part of it. You really notice the absence of people.”

Some of the keepers’ “enrichments” for the animals during the lockdown included adding different scents to their food such as cinnamon, catnip or garlic, said Peacock, or putting their kibble in a puzzle toy or trailing it through their exhibit to make it a game to find. Other ploys to placate and alleviate their boredom included changing up their personal environment. “For Diana, we just let the exhibit grow up really high. She would hide in the grass and stalk us,” Peacock said. “We took care of the animals. We can’t stop doing that because of a pandemic.”

But the biggest life-changers came when the zoo doors opened once again, both for the savage beasts within and those a bit tamer who came to see them.

“Overwhelmingly, people are happy they’re able to come back,” Peacock said. “They’re getting to see the animals and support the conservation projects. … I’ve been working in zoos for over 30 years. The powers that animals have, we sometimes take for granted. People are coming back multiple times to see their favorite animals. It makes you see how important these connections are. They inspire people. That 5-year-old young lady who comes to visit us could be the next Jane Goodall.”

Babby Farms

“We are a petting zoo,” said administrator Aaron Johnson, “this is a petting zoo.” The nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing animal interaction especially for children and adults with disabilities.

Its mission is listed on the website: “to give children and adults with disabilities the opportunity to experience the joy of interacting with a wide range of animals. Most of our animals are hand-raised for this purpose. To help our cause, we are open to the general public for a fee. Studies show that all people, disabled or not, benefit from hands-on interaction with animals.”

When Babby Farms first reopened in mid-May COVID-19 heath precautions included temperature taking of all entrants with noninvasive infrared thermometers; that practice has ceased, said Johnson. “The temperature thing was more for my employees,” he said, “and people didn’t like that. So we put signs up: please don’t come in if you’re not feeling good.”

Now, while masks are not required for staff or visitors to Babby Farms, they are highly recommended, and staff members will wear one when in close proximity to visitors, said Johnson. Hand-sanitizing stations are set up throughout and highly encouraged for use before and after any touching of the animals.

Social distancing is required, however small groups are able to have animal interactions through reserved bookings. Online tickets for entry can be purchased in two time blocks — 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1 to 5 p.m. — to regulate traffic flow. Also, Babby Farms closes on any day with temperatures of 100 or above for the protection of both animals and people, as there is little or no shade on the premises, although free umbrellas are available for sun protection. Johnson said the precautions seem to be working well.

“We haven’t had any COVID on the property, not that I’ve heard of anyway,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to get sick for sure.” The relaxing of a few of the initial, more stringent precautions has also allowed a more up close and personal experience for visitors.

Close encounters of the animal kind

“We are doing encounters right now,” said Johnson, adding that the sloth encounter with Sid and Sidney, a male and female sloth respectively — $175 for a group of six — is “already booked for the whole year. … Encounters probably started a month ago. We’re hoping we can do that all year long,” he said.

Other available encounters are with Codi the coatimundi (“like a South American raccoon,” said Johnson) and Patagonian cavies (big rodents) Pickles and Pepper.

Johnson said the response from visitors being able to come and see and interact with the animals has been positive. “They’re really happy we’re open,” he said. “They’re happy to be out in the open air. It’s been really good.”

The most popular animals to visit? “The sloths or the otters. … No, definitely the sloths,” Johnson said. Also high on the list: zebras, camels lemurs, spider monkeys and bobcats, a dwarf shetland pony, kangaroos, goats and sheep.

There are also pony rides Wednesday through Sunday. The gift shop is open and there are cold sandwiches for purchase available. Or people can bring in their own food and drinks (no alcoholic beverages allowed) and eat at a covered area with picnic tables “spaced apart for social distancing,” Johnson said, or “we have a grassy area where people can lay out a blanket and have a picnic as well.”

Johnson said the reaction from visitors to the zoo has been great. “We just had a naming contest for our 40-pound African spurred tortoise: Franklin,” he said. “We already have one named Myrtle. Kids go crazy. They love to see her out here stomping around.”

Jeanne Huff is the community engagement editor for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at 208-465-8106 and follow her on Twitter @goodnewsgirl.

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