Herrington: The Memphis Zoo takes a cautious step forward with reopening

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 12, 2020 6:22 AM CT | Published: May 12, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

Now I know how Liam Neeson felt. 

In the 2011 film “The Grey,” Neeson plays an oil worker who crashes in Alaska, where he finds himself stalked by a pack of wolves. In the film’s climactic scene, he stands eye to eye with the leader of the pack. 

At the Memphis Zoo’s Teton Trek on Monday morning, three of the zoo’s timber wolves saunter up in unison, apparently triangulating their position and all locking eyes on a visitor – me – who has just rounded the corner at the back path into the exhibit.

“The wolves don’t normally come over like this, but they haven’t seen anybody in such a long time,” says Memphis Zoo President and CEO Jim Dean.

At that, the middle wolf sits on her back haunches and leans into one of her companions, and I feel more like a curiosity than would-be prey. 

It had perhaps been two months since an unfamiliar face had wandered by, and no one can really know what the zoo’s roughly 4,500 full time residents have thought about the absence of visitors since the zoo closed on March 19 because of coronavirus.

“I’m told that the animals are paying a lot more attention to their keepers now,” Dean says. “They get into a routine like we do. They know when the zoo opens, they know when we close. We’re not sure how they’re going to react when we reopen, but we’ll see.”

That will come on Wednesday, May 13, with protocols approved by the city limiting the zoo to 2,500 patrons at a time (roughly 25% of normal capacity), requiring facial coverings and social distancing and restricting access for the moment to interior exhibit spaces such as the Tropical Bird House and Animals of the Night. 

Herrington: When will Memphis reopen? Memphis never closed

“We wanted to get reopened and we’re happy the Health Department approved our protocol and we’re excited to start hosting people again, but we want to be very cautious about it,” says Dean, a Memphis native who returned home to lead the Memphis Zoo a little more than a year ago, after working in leadership positions at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens.

“We want to keep everybody healthy, both our visitors and our team. We have several hundred people who work here and I want them to go home without the virus just like they came in.”

A new way to zoo

This Monday morning, two days before the zoo is set to reopen, is an unusually quiet one for what is normally the zoo’s peak season, but less so than most of the previous seven weeks. 

The wolves are in the minority among the curious. In the Primate Canyon, a conspiracy of lemurs lounge on an elevated platform, while across the way a romp of Asian small-clawed otters do the same in the grass. At the Zambezi River Hippo Camp, Splish – or is it Binti? – relaxes in the water, greeting her non-existent public derriere-first. Over on the African Veldt, one of the elephants, the largest animal in the zoo, is being fed by a keeper.

But most of the animals are not out. 

“They can come out if they want to, but without visitors, we’re not encouraging them,” Dean says. 

Maybe there’s Netflix in the private areas beyond the public’s view?

Memphis Botanic Garden springing back to life

If the feature attractions are taking it easy, their human helpers are ramping up. 

In a meeting space near the zoo’s main entrance, human resources officer Malcolm Boyd is conducting a training session about the new protocols for some of the full-time employees returning to active visitor-hosting duties. (“The agenda here is to keep you safe,” Deans stops by to tell them.) Maintenance crews are making adjustments around the campus. And Dean stops to welcome the zoo’s entrance manager, driving in for her first day back on site.

But much of the return work has already been done. 

When visitors return to the zoo on Wednesday or afterward, they’ll find a front entrance with crowd flow managed by the same metal gates typically used to cordon off overflow Greensward parking. (“Don’t think we’ll need them for that anytime soon,” says Dean.) They’ll find 6-foot distancings guided by stenciled markings on the ground. Those same gates have been used to add separation from the public to the animals in the zoo’s “Once Upon a Farm” exhibit. 

“This particular area gives us a little heartburn,” Dean notes walking through, though the goats munching on hay seem less stressed.

Facial coverings will be required for entrance, with Memphis Zoo-branded masks available for purchase ($2.50 each). There are hand-sanitizing stations and more ground stenciling, signs and stations to lead visitors through the zoo.

“I see the news where people around the country are asked to wear a mask and get angry,” says Dean. “But you don’t have to come to the zoo if you don’t want to wear a mask. It’s to keep our visitors healthy.”

The Memphis Zoo was once a choose-your-own-adventure endeavor. For the time being, it will no longer be that. 

“We’ll guide people in one direction around the zoo,” says Dean. “The unfortunate thing is, if you’re just here to see the giraffes it’s going to take you awhile, because you’re going to have to walk the walk. You can’t go straight to the giraffes. We want to make sure we’re orderly about this so we can maintain social spacing.”

Roughly speaking, the new tour will begin in Cat Country and then venture to the northwest corner (farm and hooved animals), east to the pandas, elephants/giraffes and bears, through the hippos and then through the primates. 

One suspects this one-way routing may be a more difficult adjustment for many zoo visitors than facial coverings or new restrictions on outside food and drink. The theoretical will soon become practice, and perhaps subject to some adjustment, but all changes are designed to meet public requirements and lessen the chance of coronavirus spread for visitors, staff and the animals. 

The latter became a concern last month, when tigers at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for coronavirus. The Memphis Zoo’s keepers began wearing masks and gloves immediately afterward.

The zoo abides

Unlike many businesses and most attractions, a zoo can close to the public, but with 4,500 permanent residents, it never closes down. 

Near the northeast corner of the zoo on Monday morning, beyond view of the public, Karla Mink and two co-workers go through a day that hasn’t changed over the past two months and won’t change when the public returns: They’re feeding the animals. 

This means putting together “bongo packs” (apples, bananas, carrots) for the giraffes and capybara packs (romaine, apples, corn, sweet potato) for the world’s largest living rodents. It means cooking rice for the birds and storing fresh blood for the bats and butchering meat for the carnivores. 

Mink estimates the nutrition center processes about 200 pounds of Romaine lettuce a day, 75 pounds of carrots, 100 pounds of kale, 50 pounds of potatoes, 15 dozen eggs. Every day. Regardless of whether the zoo is “open” or not. 

“(The animals) still have to eat. We still have to keep the keepers happy. We’ve been here working our eight-hour shifts the whole time. We haven’t missed a beat, because we can’t,” says Mink.

“Wouldn’t you say that our food quality is human quality food?” Dean asks.

“No. It’s better,” Mink says. 

She points to the boxes of cantaloupe and tomato in the walk-in fridge. 

“It’s from Wal-Mart. It’s the same stuff that goes to every supermarket, we just get it in a larger quantity. The primates eat tofu.” 

No Twinkies here. You will find canisters of Folger’s and Swiss Miss. For the humans. 

“We get taken care of, too,” Mink says.

The Memphis Zoo spends about $2,000 a day on food for the animals, contributing to roughly $50,000 a day in fixed costs that can’t be trimmed if a zoo wants to remain a zoo. 

“We need 2,500 people a day to help us meet those costs,” says Dean.

When the zoo was forced to close in mid-March, the roughly 100 to 150 part-time workers brought in for peak season were furloughed, but the zoo retained all of its full-time staff, according to Dean, a federal forgivable loan from the Payroll Protection Program helping them make it through. 

In addition to the constant care of the animals on public display, there is conservation work, such as in a nondescript building behind a fence, facing the zoo’s Northwest Passage exhibit. 

“That’s our Louisiana Pine Snake building,” says Dean. “It’s a very endangered species and the Memphis Zoo is one of the only organizations in the world that’s saving it and reintroducing it to the wild.” 

In order to maintain engagement with the public and illustrate the work that continues even without visitors, the Memphis Zoo has boosted its pre-existing video presentations across social media channels, with such features as daily “Virtual Wild Encounters,” a ZOOlympics series voiced by local sports broadcaster Greg Gaston and the adventures of “Zoo Dude,” aka chief zoological officer Matt Thompson. 

These efforts have garnered national attention from the likes of ABC and CBS news, the latter of which featured the Memphis Zoo on its Sunday morning programming this past weekend, alongside the San Diego Zoo. 

“If they were going to pick two zoos to feature, that’s pretty good,” Dean says. 

Staying on Course

The NBA wasn’t the only thing that got stopped by coronavirus just as it was starting to get good. 

The zoo is typically open year-round, but is still a kind of seasonal business. Spring accounts for a quarter of the calendar, but with spring break, end-of-year school field trips and good weather boosting attendance, Dean estimates the season accounts for more like 50% of the zoo’s attendance revenue. 

The zoo lost the bulk of that and is now trying to figure out how to salvage its other main revenue generator: Events such as Zoo Brew or Zoo Lights. Can they be held in accordance with social distancing? 

With spring attendance and major events together composing “a majority” of annual revenue, Deans says the zoo is “going to be off $10 million this year, give or take.”

It was bad enough – is bad enough – that the zoo considered trying to convert itself, temporarily, into a driving experience, whether via golf carts or cars.

“We were just starting to work through the details on that,” Dean says. “When we saw that our protocol was getting some traction with the mayor’s office, we realized that reopening was a reality. We couldn’t have waited three or four months, so we would have reorganized as best we could to do a drive-thru.” 

And if the zoo had to maintain most of its staff even while being closed to the public, it will have to come back at full staff – or more – even while keeping occupancy at 25%. 

It’s going to take more people than we closed with,” says Dean. “I’ve worked in the theme park business for 35 years now. People don’t really read signs. We’re going to have to have more people, hosts, to help manage flow. And more maintenance. We’re certainly going to scrub the zoo down every night after we close.” 

The zoo, like the city that owns it, has both an operating budget and a capital budget. The former has taken a big hit amid coronavirus. Deans hopes that doesn’t bleed into plans for the latter, which have been proceeding amid the shutdown. 

After a generation of expansion, including controversial incursions into the Old Forest and park greensward, Dean came into the job with a vision of “better, not bigger.” 

“We were growing in attendance and revenue and we were working on the future,” says Dean of the zoo’s status when coronavirus came. “We’ve got three projects in different stages of development.”

The furthest out of those will be a full renovation of the zoo’s western edge, home of the outdated aquarium, farm exhibit, bird and snake houses, and more. Nearer term is a re-do of the “African Veldt,” home of the elephants, giraffes, rhinos and others. Looming even sooner are as-yet-unannounced plans for a smaller section on the north end where the hippos once lived. 

Dean hopes the zoo can successfully reopen and not lose momentum on those longer-range projects. 

“The operating budget is how to keep the lights on and keep things going. The capital budget is our master-planning projects and new exhibits,” Dean says. “They’re not unrelated. We’re a not-for-profit organization, so we need to be breaking even and not using our capital money to run the zoo.”

As the Memphis Zoo tiptoes into its coronavirus future this week, it won’t have much practical example to guide it. This past weekend, the zoo in Jacksonville, Florida, reopened, but most around the country remain closed, Dean notes. 

“There’s a very active community within zoos and aquariums, around the world. And so that community has been sharing notes since the first day that anyone closed,” Dean says. “There’s been lots of discussion about what and how and when to do things. The debate goes on, but in terms of a live test case, there’s not much to look at. So we’re kind of setting the pace for the industry. We’ll see how it goes. Memphis loves its zoo, and I expect we’ll get a good response.” 

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Memphis Zoo Jim Dean

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