The Cincinnati Zoo Hosts Virtual Home Safaris

The Zoo is adapting to Zoom to virtually engage patrons and fundraise during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an eye toward reopening.

When Ohio issued stay-at-home orders due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus, businesses were forced to close and events were canceled, but business owners still had to generate revenue and continue engaging consumers. For the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, what would have been the start of its spring/summer season was replaced by weeks of empty walkways and quiet gift shops.

Spring means it’s time for Zoo Babies, even without in-person visitors at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

Photograph by Mark Dumont

The lack of patrons, though, doesn’t stop zookeepers and employees from clocking into work every day to continue caring for the animals and their exhibits. Executive Director Thane Maynard says that, although it was an uncertain predicament, the zoo was prepared to adjust quickly. They switched most employees to remote working, issued masks to zookeepers and veterinarians, and limited the amount of keepers in one area at a time to avoid spreading the virus.

“The zoo’s almost 150 years old, so it’s been through a lot,” Maynard says. “It went through the 1918 pandemic and through the Great Depression. The zoo will be back, and it will thrive. … We’re eager to open again, and we’ll keep all the animals healthy until that time.”

Kim Denzler, the zoo’s events coordinator, says the need for continuous care is essential to animals’ livelihood. From preparing food to ensuring the animals are stimulated and healthy, working closely with each species requires daily training and conditioning. “When you think of zoo animals, there’s a tremendous amount of training and husbandry that goes on every single day,” Maynard says. He notes that in order for a veterinarian to properly care for the zoo’s animals, the animal needs to continuously learn and relearn trust. “Every single day you have to reinforce that behavior,” he says.

While zoo employees work tirelessly, community members have been at home missing out on interacting with their favorite animals. So the zoo tries to bring the animals into homes throughout Cincinnati—virtually, that is. Every day at 3 p.m. over the past two months, one zookeeper has taken to Facebook live from inside an animal habitat for a virtual home safari providing an up-close look at animals like giraffes, meerkats, and cheetahs. After just two weeks of the home safaris, the zoo’s Facebook following grew by a million likes, allowing the organization to reach more people through social media than it would have if it were still open.

“Part of the charm, and why I think people enjoy them so much, is because these are homemade safaris,” Maynard says. “The keepers who are in there working with the animal use their cell phone. There’s no tripod, there’s no script, but they have a lot of energy. It’s a little peek into both the keeper’s day as well as the animal’s day.”

After each home safari, viewers are encouraged to participate in do-it-yourself activities related to the animal featured, like creating a sloth habitat out of items found in nature or drawing a rhino by tracing a handprint. Denzler says these activities were a great way to entertain kids in a fun and educational way.

The home safaris also include a link for viewers to donate to the zoo’s emergency fund, intended to aid in the cost of caring for the animals and maintaining the facilities while day passes were unable to be purchased. To Maynard’s surprise, Cincinnatians were still purchasing memberships to the zoo despite not knowing when the facilities would open for business again.

Cincy Shirts in Over-the-Rhine pitched in by designing a custom T-shirt touting “Our Zoo Is a Keeper,” with an illustration of the widely adored Fiona the hippo. Proceeds from the shirt are being donated to the Zoo’s Emergency Operating Fund.

“All of us at the zoo want to thank all of the support we’ve gotten from people throughout this community,” Maynard says. “When we open again, folks will able to enjoy the Cincinnati Zoo as they have for so long.”

[NOTE: Read the zoo’s policies for reopening to members on June 10 and the general public on June 17.]

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