Looking back, looking forward 

by ZSL on

It's been a year since ZSL London and Whipsnade Zoos first closed their doors to the public as a result of the coronavirus pandemic: ZSL’s Director General Dominic Jermey looks back at how ZSL has been impacted by the global event - and the achievements the Charity has made in the face of an unprecedented year.

This is a moment of intense activity for ZSL. We are renewing and rebuilding at both ZSL London and Whipsnade Zoos, getting ready for visitors to return in April, and we are still raising media awareness of our fundraising appeal, trying to recoup the massive losses of lockdown. 

Little did I know, a year ago on Sunday 22 March last year, what lay ahead as we closed the gates to our zoos for the first time since World War Two.  

I remember the intense fear of the early days. After watching the number of coronavirus infections steadily rise during March, we knew the only responsible action was to support the national effort behind the NHS by shutting our doors to visitors.

While inside our zoos, Whipsnade’s African lions were still roaring over the Dunstable Downs, and white cheeked gibbons Jimmy and Yoda were still singing their morning song for our Regent’s Park neighbours, without people, it was, for the most part, eerily quiet. 

A day later, the whole country entered the first, official, national ‘lockdown’ – hard to imagine that was a little used word a year ago; like “furlough’ and ‘social-distancing,’ it is now an integral part of the nation’s new vernacular. 

London zoo closed in lockdown
A closed sign outside ZSL London Zoo’s shuttered gates in March 2020: after closing our doors, we offered up our car park to NHS staff working at nearly hospitals, donating uneaten food from the Terrace Restaurant to key workers.

Even at the start of the pandemic, I was struck by the irony of ZSL having been investigating and warning against the dangers of wildlife diseases - including coronaviruses - for decades, while that was exactly what shut our zoos down.   

As far back as 2005, ZSL’s Professor Andrew Cunningham wrote in the British Medical Journal on the human exploitation of wildlife heightening pandemic risk; a paper he co-authored in 2013 identified 137 bat viruses of which 61 were known to be capable of infecting people at that time. We quickly became a leading voice in the public discourse grappling with this new, foreboding presence in our lives. 

Inside our zoos, while so many of us stayed at home, ZSL’s dedicated zookeepers, vets and grounds team ensured life went on as normal for the animals. We furloughed as many office and retail staff as possible to reduce costs and those who remained on site were responsible for feeding and caring for everything from the tiniest leafcutter ant at London Zoo to the giant herd of Endangered Asian elephants at Whipsnade Zoo. 

No one expected that a year later we would still find ourselves battling the knock-on effects of the pandemic. 

Most of the animals were blissfully unaware that anything was different, while for others it was clear they missed the public: in those cases, zookeepers made sure they were given extra attention, particularly London Zoo’s pygmy goats, who missed being stroked, and Jimmy the gibbon, who has since become famous in Regent’s Park for his attention-seeking swinging displays, visible over the zoo’s boundary fence. 

Zookeeper Jess Courtney-Jones self-filmed a video diary during the first lockdown, to reassure the public that life was continuing behind our closed doors.

This was a crisis moment for ZSL. No income from zoo visitors threatened our very existence, putting our many conservation and science projects at serious risk. We needed to do something differently and to do it fast.  

With the support of Sir David Attenborough, we launched the largest fundraising campaign in ZSL history, to try and cover the £1million a month it costs to feed and care for the animals at both our zoos. 

Sir David’s support was swiftly followed by comedians including Bill Bailey, Jonathan Ross, Meera Syal and Catherine Tate, who lent their voices to some of our zoo’s residents for a light-hearted television advert to boost the appeal.  

The resulting short film, made pro bono by international marketing agency Wunderman Thompson, featured Bob the emperor tamarin monkey, voiced by Bill Bailey, chairing a Zoom meeting with both furred and feathered ‘colleagues’ to discuss how to raise urgent funds - with Bhanu the Asiatic lion landing on the winning idea through an accidental screen freeze. 

With supermarket shelves getting stripped in the early days, we feared the worst over getting the right animal foods. But our suppliers supported us magnificently - at London Zoo, fresh fruit and veg continued to be delivered three times a week from Covent Garden Market, and when supplies of browse - leafy branches, eaten continuously by camels, giraffes, gorillas and okapi - were interrupted, ingenious zookeepers worked with the Royal Parks to collect what they were pruning. I have never seen people get so excited about branches – a lovely example of adapting to extraordinary times by our impressive keeper team! 

Zookeeper handling vegetables
Zookeeper Dan Simmonds wears a mask and gloves to take delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables for the primates at ZSL London Zoo – part of the safety measures put in place on site to protect the animals.

We needed to get the message out about the challenges we faced, and how we were rising to the challenge. Along with many media interviews, we invited a small camera crew in full PPE from ITV to capture life during lockdown at our zoos for a documentary, which aired in September. It was unthinkable that we wouldn’t survive this historic period, and it was important to record it for posterity, just as we kept photographic and written records of how the team adapted to protect the animals from the Blitz during World War II. 

We clapped for the NHS every Thursday, erecting a giant illuminated NHS logo onto London Zoo’s Giraffe House.  This has become a symbol of lockdown, positioned to be visible to emergency services teams, who we’d noticed were stopping for well-deserved lunchbreaks on the road outside the zoo, to watch our giraffes Maggie and Molly.

Spirits were lifted when we welcomed two baby Asian short-clawed otters in London and an Endangered Przewalski’s foal at Whipsnade in April, and when our conservation team rescued an illegally trafficked baby pangolin in Thailand – a species then much-maligned as a possible cause of the pandemic. The team named her ‘Hope’, as much an expression of sentiment for her survival, as for our own. 

zookeeper with sealion holding sign 'we're open'
Zookeeper Alex Pinnell celebrating the reopening of Whipsnade Zoo in June with the sealion family – who have since moved to their new home at Yorkshire Wildlife Park.

Reopening in June 2020 was a moment of undiluted joy.  We knew people were desperate to come out of lockdown and seeing the reaction of visitors able to enter the zoos again and engage with wildlife was a precious moment - opening up spaces again which have inspired, among others, Charles Darwin, Sir David Attenborough and whole generations of families for decades.  

But the financial challenge remained. Limiting our capacities to 2,000 visitors a day to ensure social distancing meant we had little hope of quickly clawing back our losses, so we still had a desperate need to fundraise. 

Unable to access the Government’s restrictive Zoo Animal Fund, we secured a bank loan, which was a lifeline in the short term, but one that will ultimately impact us financially for years to come.  

Autumn saw more highs and lows. At London Zoo we were overjoyed to welcome an Endangered baby okapi, Ede, after mum Oni’s 16-month pregnancy. At Whipsnade, two female white rhinos - Jazeera and Fahari - arrived as part of an international breeding programme for the species, to be potential partners for 32-year-old male, Sizzle.  

Okapi - Ede
Ede the okapi, born in September 2020: vets continued to perform important ultrasounds on mum-to-be Oni throughout the lockdown, taking care to remain ‘an okapi’s length apart’ from each other as part of social-distancing measures.

Sadly, as travel restrictions tightened, we had to postpone our yearly reintroduction of a formerly Extinct-in-the-Wild species, the partula snail, to French Polynesia. We’re hopeful that the thousands of partula – usually bred in multiple zoos throughout the year before being flown to their island homes every September to rebuild the population – will return to the islands this year instead, but the delay was a definite blow to the important breeding and reintroduction programme. 

We all know people directly affected by COVID; sadly at ZSL, we lost a treasured colleague, conservation biologist Dr Trevor Coote. After dedicating the past 20 years to the partula project, Trevor had just returned to the UK from French Polynesia to retire, when he caught and succumbed to the virus. 

While inside our zoos the team were growing accustomed to our new, carefully redesigned, reality, outside our gates coronavirus cases were climbing. A second nationwide lockdown in November had us all holding our breath: we had been counting on Christmas being an important time to raise both funds and our local communities’ spirits, and it was worrying not knowing if either of these would be possible. 

We were able to reopen for three weeks that month before being forced to close once more – but during that time it was heartening to see how important the zoos were to people, with families enjoying our festive decorations and praising our Covid safety measures on social media. 

And here we still are, in the nation’s third lockdown, set to reopen on Monday 12 April; we really hope that will be possible, while recognising even that means we’ll be spending a second Easter break closed to the public - a disappointment which has been keenly felt across the charity. Put quite simply, we all miss seeing our visitors, especially our members, fellows and patrons, who are vital to us being able to continue our important work. 

Elephant keeper Stefan Groeneveld reading a bedtime story on Facebook to our younger visitors during the third lockdowns, keeping children connected to wildlife through our Tails from the Zoo series while we were closed – and giving parents a night off once a week!

By the time we reopen, our zoos will have been closed for a total of 29 weeks and we expect the pandemic to have cost us £26million in lost revenue. We’ve raised an incredible £6.8m of that back, thanks to generous members of the public. But we’ve a long way to go and will still need help for a long time to come.  

I am incredibly proud of the whole ZSL team for everything they have done to keep our animals safe and well-cared for, and the charity moving forward during what has been the toughest year in our history. 

We will rebuild, just as our whole society will rebuild, as we emerge from the bleakness of the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve been a vital part of the scientific community – and our local communities – for almost 200 years, and with the public’s support, we’re determined to remain that way for at least 200 more.  

We can't wait to welcome you back to our Zoos. Be the first to hear when tickets are on sale by signing up for email updates. And in the meantime, if you can support us while we're closed, it will make a real difference. Thank so you much.

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