Remember the video of those adorable toddling penguins exploring Chicago’s shuttered Shed Aquarium shortly after lockdown orders went into effect? I admit at the time the footage brought to mind a Westworld-style scenario where inhabitants of a fake environment are released into the real world only to realize they’ve been prisoners of a simulation. I hadn’t considered the penguin’s genuine need for socializing and stimulation, sorely lacking now that zoos are closed to weather the coronavirus pandemic. And apparently they’re not alone. Zoo creatures the world over are reportedly experiencing loneliness and boredom because nobody visits them anymore.
Several zoo administrators talked to The New Yorker recently about this startling phenomenon. Clément Lanthier, CEO and president of the Calgary Zoo, said many of their zoo animals seem particularly starved for attention these days and posits they are particularly missing “the variety of smells that come through the zoo every day.” The camels, “normally nonchalant,” have also been eager to socialize with their keepers. The gorillas come to the window whenever a human approaches. “I walked by the meerkats in the Savannah building yesterday, and they ran right up to me,” Lanthier said.
Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums said, “It’s fair to say animals miss people as much as people miss animals.” Ashe believes that the humans who once gawked and cooed at the zoo animals all day were a form of enrichment. “Their day is less interesting or varied without us.”
Lots of captive animals have been going on excursions to fight malaise. The Kansas City Zoo also planned a field trip for their penguins last week, shepherding them to the nearby Nelson-Atkins Art Museum for a “morning of fine art and culture.” The zoo’s director, Randy Wisthoff, told The New Yorker, “We’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and stimulate their days.” Pink flamingos in zoos in Denver and Portland have been allowed to roam outside their enclosures. Llamas at the Toronto Zoo checked in on their friendly neighborhood polar bears. Sea lions at the Chicago aquarium got to explore some human office spaces.
In short, now the human workers of the zoos are the watched ones, the awaited, the beloved. If only zoo creatures could watch Normal People and chill, their isolation might be easier to bear.