Some zoo animals are doing fine without visitors. But many are lonely without us

Anna Peele

THE WASHINGTON POST – Maybe this time will be different.

The blue crowned pigeon approaches his mate and begins davening, twerking his tail toward the skylight of the Cape May County Zoo aviary as his beak dips toward earth. His intensity and focus during the mating ritual, coupled with the wild tuile topping his head, give him the look of an 18th-Century composer banging away at what just might be a masterpiece. The recipient of this overture is completely still, her eyes projecting a glazed endurance.

When the dance is over – or perhaps in a move that ends the dance – the female pigeon turns and begins picking at the ground.

“We’d like them to breed, but they just can’t get it right,” sighed Janeen Moore, a zookeeper charged with caring for these birds, as well as every other winged creature at this zoo at the southernmost tip of New Jersey. Like the other 20 full-time keepers, she is wearing one of her many monogrammed Cape May County Zoo shirts, unisex work pants and a face mask. Moore explained the female pigeon had been at the zoo for nearly three years before her “genetically suitable” mate arrived for this arranged marriage.

Though the male has been trying to impress her since 2016, the female pigeon is simply, Moore said, “not feeling it.” The male’s efforts to woo also include repeated attempts to build a nest, but when he summons his mate to inspect his efforts, Moore said, “She comes up and goes, ‘That’s not good enough,’ and throws it all out,” knocking the insufficiently arranged sticks out of the tree and onto the ground. Every egg the dysfunctional coupling managed to produce was either unfertilised or cracked.

A giraffe reaches for leaves at Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
An otter looks out from his enclosure at Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey

After so many years, it would seem childishly optimistic to think the pigeon couple might get it right during this particular mating season. But without the peeping eyes of the usual spectators, now could be the perfect time.

Like so much of the rest of the country, the Cape May County Zoo closed in March to ensure the safety of the human public. But the closure keeps its animal inhabitants safe, too: In April, New York City’s Bronx Zoo found that eight of its big cats contracted the coronavirus from an asymptomatic keeper, and it’s assumed primates can also be infected because of their biological similarity to humans.

The sudden absence of civilians puts into focus who is really served by zoos. The institutions ostensibly exist for the preservation of animals. But if we’re honest with ourselves, conservation is often for and funded by human enjoyment of animal life; zoos, after all, are categorised by New Jersey law as “amusements”. During the pandemic, to protect animal life, zoos continue to run for the benefit of the amusers even as we forgo our own good time.

Which means no annoying people crowding around enclosures. No kids yelling or cameras flashing or cellphones accidentally dropping into their homes. There have been news stories about penguins that got to take a hike in the woods near their exhibit in Oregon and cheetahs in Providence, Rhode Island, that were visited by a keeper in a tantalising rabbit costume. In Hong Kong, a pair of pandas that had been haplessly failing to mate for a decade managed to consummate their union after their zoo shut to the public in January. Nature is healing, as the coronavirus-era meme says. Humans are the disease.

If that’s true, then a human-free environment is a respite for the animals of the Cape May Zoo – a blessed break from watching us watch them. Away from the strains and scrutiny of public life, without people making everything worse, maybe the blue crowned pigeons will get the chance to follow the lead of the pandas: It’s time to relax, make a baby and finally finish that home improvement project.

While the zoo is a public facility that gets a budget from the county government to pay zookeeper salaries, parks director Ed Runyon said the organisation runs “almost entirely” on donations from visitors, who pay no entrance fees. In spring, the zoo typically takes in about a quarter of its annual donations, which cover costs like the staggering USD50,000 a month food bill.

For now, the sudden disappearance of the humans who pay for meals is the biggest change for the animals. Which is just fine by the reptiles, said general curator and supervising animal keeper Kevin Wilson. “They certainly don’t seem to be fazed by the quiet time. I think they like it.” Wilson said during “the very bad months” of summer, “you’ve got a thousand people in this building”, gesturing around the now-quiet indoor reptile house, covered in swamp-approximating murals and lit with the sallow flicker of heat lamps. “They’re all banging on the glass, because the kids want the animals to react,” Wilson said. “And the more people bang on the glass, the more the animals just hide in the back. And some of them do stress out. They don’t eat.”

Unlike mammals, who are temporarily raised by their parents, reptiles are heuristic. “Out of the egg and on their own,” said Wilson. It’s not built into them to socialise with each other, much less people. “Alligators, crocodiles, snakes, everything like that,” Wilson listed, looking down at Ike, an eight-foot American alligator whose eyes and nostrils are the only body parts that break the meniscus of his pond. Paddling runty claws tipped with white, Cardi B-long talons, Ike silently drifts toward the voice of the man who feeds him but whom he feels nothing toward. “It’s not so much they want to be with you,” Wilson said. “You’re fulfilling a need.”

“They certainly don’t seem to be fazed by the quiet time. I think they like it,” said general curator and supervising animal keeper Kevin Wilson.

This exchange – you give me what I require to survive, I let your buddies look at me – is what I assumed to be the basis of most human-zoo animal relationships. That if animals were the aristocracy of the zoo, keepers were the staff that knew its place and the public was merely tolerated as the subjects funding the venture.

But for some animals, the attachment is more than transactional. Bird keeper Moore introduced me to Gil, a gray cockatoo who became so distressed at his newfound solitude that he began self-harming, plucking his chest feathers until he gnawed a hole in his skin that had to be covered with a vest the bird immediately ripped apart. “They love getting talked to all day,” Moore said, turning her head upside down at a blue parrot named Brat. He is used to Moore’s face, and, like everyone else, hates the masks protecting us; he repeatedly tries to remove Moore’s. “He just doesn’t think it belongs there,” she said. “You think you’re coming to the zoo to watch the animals. Well, the animals are watching you, too.” When I laugh at Moore’s words, Brat’s mate, Azur, mimics my peal back at me.

Like the parrots, the zoo’s primates socialise with humans. So do otters and camels and, unlike their reptile brethren, tortoises, which come over to keepers and excitedly play at their feet even when they know no food is forthcoming. They thrill at human contact.

Keepers are filling in the new social gap. “[The animals] look forward to their company,” said Doc. But, he told me, “They do miss the crowds and the variety of people coming through.” Watch the news or go on Twitter or attend a peaceful protest met with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, and you know the meme is true: Humans are almost always the disease. It feels like a miracle to find a place where our presence is a cure.

After two months of the rapture-like scene at the zoo, even animals generally apathetic to people seem to feel the loss. “I might have been a little surprised by certain species that may have missed the public more than I thought they would,” said Doc.

“I was walking by the bison,” parks director Runyon said. “Usually they don’t care about anything. But they were coming right over and just staring at us as we were walking by.” When I cross the bridge by the massive bison enclosure, several steers, mid-spring molt, walk underneath and gaze up at me.

Later, the female half of a pair of lions comes up to the fence and pushes her haunch against the chain link for a scratch no one is allowed to give her. Based on what we saw from the cats at the Bronx Zoo, if the lioness’s keeper had the coronavirus and the lioness got near enough to her keeper to catch it, the most severe symptom she’d experience is a cough. Who is being served by these rules? “It’s the people that [the virus] is affecting,” said Doc. “It’s not affecting animals to any extent.”

When animals’ well-being is prioritised over their availability to be admired, an object becomes the subject; a prop transforms into the protagonist. Though this shift in values has never been starker than during this pandemic – the lives of the animals at the Cape May County Zoo are given vastly more consideration than, say, workers at a meat plant – it’s part of a broader movement in the industry. Zoos like Cape May are increasingly oriented toward welfare, which Doc said has become a “buzzword” in the past decade.

A zoo’s mission is to use the human draw toward charismatic megafauna to protect those creatures. Without that trade, zoos don’t exist. Which means they have to figure out how close we can safely get, whether it’s to prevent tigers from getting the coronavirus or to allow them to live as organic and fulfilling a life as one can behind a fence.