Coping with Change: CMZoo Animals Adapt to Closure with Help from Keepers

April 30, 2020

Children’s Hospital Colorado, our year-round sponsor, offers helpful guidance for helping children cope with stress and anxiety related to the ‘new normal’ of life during the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to a recent blog, they will be hosting a virtual talk on the topic, just for members and fans of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, on Friday, May 8. (See all the details on the talk at the end of this article.)

Similarly, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s animal care department has found ways to help the animals in their care stay engaged and healthy, despite the changes in their daily lives.

“We’re working to help them feel as little interruption to their normal routines as possible,” said Jeff Halter, vice president of animal care. “Our animals are participating in training, husbandry behaviors, enrichment activities and daily interactions with their keepers. Through our Abnormally Normal series on social media, they’re participating in keeper talks and demonstrations. But, we can tell they know there’s something important missing from their normal lives: our guests and members.”

In May 2019, more than 80,000 people visited Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Going from an average of 2,500 visitors per day to none has been an adjustment for everyone – including most of the animals. We told you last month about how the great apes of Primate World have shown us they miss guests, and they’re not the only ones.

The African elephants have noticed a difference in their routines, too. The elephant herd of six females usually stays in groups of two or sometimes three in various areas of the yard and barn. One of those groups is Missy and LouLou.

“When we first closed, the elephants were used to their regularly scheduled feeding experience with guests, which always takes place right after the elephant demonstration,” said Stacey Smith, elephant and rhino keeper in Encounter Africa. “LouLou would see Missy going to the demo yard, so LouLou would head over to the elephant ‘snack time’ area in anticipation of her time with guests. After completing Missy’s training, we keepers would call for LouLou for her time to train in the demo yard. This only happened a few times, but LouLou would hesitate at the ‘snack time’ area, seemingly disappointed that there wasn’t a line of guests waiting to give her attention and treats.”

Keepers have been getting creative with ways to keep the animals in their care mentally and physically enriched. To replace keeper talks, giraffe keepers say they’re doing more frequent training and providing more enrichment items. The elephants are continuing daily training and foot care in the demonstration yards, and recently enjoyed a whole watermelon each for Easter. Last week, the elephants got special tree trunks and a mud wallow, which they thoroughly enjoyed in a light spring rain.

“Since we’ve been closed almost six weeks now, they’re getting more used to this new routine and not having those 30-minute snack times with guests,” said Smith. “We don’t offer those snack time experiences in the winter, either, so it’s not entirely new for the elephants. We’ve been providing extra enrichment and training so they’re staying engaged, but I’m sure they’ll be excited to get that time back with people once we reopen.”

However, not all animals seem to notice a lack of guest interactions in their daily lives. Keepers say the CMZoo pack of seven Mexican wolves, for example, isn’t experiencing much out of the ordinary. The wolf pack, unlike most animals at CMZoo, doesn’t participate in training or interact with guests. The wolf exhibit is expansive and the guest viewing area has one-way glass, so the wolves don’t see as much of our guests than most other animals. They are intentionally kept as wild as possible because the hope is that their future offspring could be released to supplement the endangered species in the wild.

Most members of CMZoo’s reticulated giraffe herd of 16 seem to miss guests and get particularly interested in the staff who visit them – with or without lettuce. The giraffe boardwalk in African Rift Valley puts giraffe and guests face-to-face during daily lettuce feeding opportunities, so most of the giraffe are used to interacting with large numbers of people.

One member of the CMZoo giraffe herd may be benefitting from the quiet time, though. Panya, a 2-year-old reticulated giraffe who joined the CMZoo herd in September, recently started spending time with the full herd after slowly meeting various members over the winter.

“Panya has been shyer than a lot of our herd members,” said Kayla Ringuette, African Rift Valley keeper who works closely with Panya. “Because of the closure, we’ve been able to help Panya gain confidence in the big yard more quickly than we might have been able to with guests, because she has been pretty hesitant in the past.”

Panya began her introductions to the herd in the barn, over the winter. She started going outside in mid-April with some of the herd and later in the month with the whole herd.

“While the majority of our herd definitely misses guests, this time has allowed Panya to get really comfortable with the yard and the herd, which could have been intimidating for her with large numbers of people,” Ringuette said. “When we reopen she’ll be confident in the yard with the herd, and she’ll be ready to meet our awesome herd fans. If there is a silver lining, it’s that Panya got this extra time she’s using to adjust. She’s doing so well.”

Animals can be an inspiration during difficult times, showing us how they adapt to changes and show resilience through challenges. We’re working to continue fostering connections between our members and guests and the animals they love.

The Zoo is embracing its role as a community resource, even while we can’t invite our community inside our gates. Through online activity videos, keeper talks, animal demonstrations and moments of #CMZooZen, our team continues to reach our fans and inspire a love for animals and the natural world. CMZoo’s social media platforms are buzzing with our timely series called Abnormally Normal.

Although we’re temporarily closed, we’re permanently committed to caring for our animals and keeping you connected to our mission, our animals and the natural world. It’s definitely an abnormal time in the world, but we’re providing special glimpses at how normal things are at the Zoo. Follow our Abnormally Normal Video Series on Facebook and YouTube! As always, our guests are enjoying the giraffe herd remotely, using our two live streaming Giraffe Cams overlooking the outdoor yard.

In effort to serve as a continued resource for children and families during these uncertain times, Children’s Hospital Colorado is hosting a live webinar on Friday, May 8 at 12 p.m. MT. Dr. Jessica Hawks, clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, will be presenting on the topic of COVID-19 and Mental Health. Dr. Hawks will describe unique challenges children, teens and parents are facing during the COVID-19 crisis, how parents can talk to their kids about COVID-19, warning signs that a child or teen may be experiencing mental health concerns, and how children, teens and parents can best cope during this difficult time. Time will be reserved for Q&A to address any specific questions families may have regarding this topic. Click this link on Friday, May 8, 2020 at 12 p.m. to join the live webinar on Zoom, hosted by Children’s Hospital Colorado:

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