Animals Miss Visitors As Jacksonville Zoo Plans For Reopening With Changes

May 1, 2020

Since the penguins haven’t been able to interact with any guests, they’ve grown a lot more clingy.

Larkin Johansen, the Jacksonville Zoo’s senior birdkeeper, said on Friday, “I usually have five to seven birds trying to walk with me everywhere I go.” 

To keep them from getting too bored, Johansen takes them around the zoo for walks, on walkways that have been empty of visitors since March 13, when Mayor Lenny Curry issued an executive order to close all parks and city-owned facilities. 

Dan Maloney, the deputy director of animal care at the zoo, says he doesn’t know when exactly they’ll get the green light to reopen, but he expects it will be some time within the next couple of weeks. 

When it does reopen, capacity will be limited to 1,500 people, cashless payment will be the only option, and the pathways will be split into two one-way paths to limit congestion.

“We are trying to make these rules up as we go along, and we're doing our best to follow the CDC guidelines or consult with all kinds of experts,” Maloney said.

Related: Local, State, And National Coronavirus Coverage

People who visit the zoo will be allowed in only for three-hour time slots, and areas that encourage crowds in small places will be closed. The zoo staff will also constantly disinfect seating on attractions like the carousel and train, he said. 

Maloney said the closure has been terrible timing for the zoo. 

“We were closed during what was to be our biggest time ever,” Maloney said. “It was spring break, and then kids get out of school and the weather has been ideal. So we had anticipated that we lost a lot of revenue.”

Just a week before the closing, the zoo had opened a special exhibit called Dinosauria that had been in the works for a year. The exhibit with 22 “life-size” animatronic dinos and other prehistoric creatures was supposed to run from March to July.

To mitigate the financial losses, the zoo held an auction, allowing bids on everything from paintings made by the animals to zoo tours. It raised over $50,000. 

The zoo is holding another online auction now through Tuesday, May 5. 

As part of a $159 million stimulus package City Council just passed, $20 million is supposed to be allocated to city-owned facilities like the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Before a specific amount is given, it must once again go through council approval.

“We don't know yet how that's going to be distributed,” Maloney said. “I don't know if that plan has been revealed.”

At first, Maloney said, the staff thought it was nice having the zoo to themselves. But after a while, even the animals are getting sick of the peace and quiet.  

“They, probably in many ways, miss the activity, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the colors,” Maloney said. 

However, one of the benefits of the empty zoo is the progress that’s being made on projects like a new entryway and new parking lot. 

Without having to worry about customers, the first phase of the parking lot has been completed quickly. 

“We took advantage of continuing that work, because otherwise it would have been next to impossible to do what has been done, and at the rate and the scope if guests needed to get through,” Maloney said. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.