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At Hogle Zoo, the animals (nonhuman) are doing just fine

Erica Hansen, community relations coordinator at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, and Harvey Helton, 3, of Kearns, communicate with Tuah, an orangutan, at the zoo in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. According to zoo officials, the primates missed the interaction with guests during the zoo’s 50 days of closure that occurred at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Erica Hansen, community relations coordinator at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, and Harvey Helton, 3, of Kearns, communicate with Tuah, an orangutan, at the zoo in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. According to zoo officials, the primates missed the interaction with guests during the zoo’s 50 days of closure that occurred at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Like the rest of us, Utah’s Hogle Zoo is clawing its way out of the pandemic, looking forward to a not-too-far-off future that will be filled with crowds at full capacity, no one wearing masks, good old boring normalcy — and hopefully the PTSD won’t be too bad.

But that’s just the humans.

The rest of the animals, they seem to have weathered the storm just fine.

Not a single zoo animal has come down with COVID-19, for one thing. For another, even as they’ve watched the behavior of the paying public become increasingly bizarre — they’ve seen more than a few shall we say spirited discussions among the patrons about mask-wearing — the state of mind of the zoo’s 800 or so permanent residents has remained more or less trauma free.

“The animals did great,” said Erica Hansen, the zoo’s manager of community relations, looking back on a year when the zoo closed down entirely for 50 days last spring and ever since has operated at less than 50% capacity to allow for increased sanitizing and proper social distancing.

For some animals, in fact, the downturn in attention has been downright welcome.

Most of the reptiles, for instance, have enjoyed the solitude. Snakes don’t require much in the way of company.

“It can get pretty loud in the reptile house when it’s crowded,” said Hansen. “Some of those animals did seem to enjoy the added quiet.”

Many of the zoo’s bigger animals, Hansen noted, are more or less indifferent about social interaction. The lions, tigers, leopards, bears, et. al., “they don’t care who’s watching them. So (a year of less attention) was neither here nor there for them.”

And then there’s the Pallas’ cat, aka the queen of introverts. If no one visits, fine by them.

“They pretty much never like to be bothered,” Hansen said of the small, reclusive felines. “They’re kind of the original grumpy cat. They’re little, but they’re very ferocious. The keepers joke that they’d rather come face to face with a tiger.”

On the other end of the zoo’s social spectrum there’s the primates: the gorillas and orangutans.

If the Pallas’ cat reigns supreme as zoo introvert, these guys are the extroverts — the class clowns, the hams, the cutups, the ones running for office.

On our visit to the zoo last week, Hansen took photographer Laura Seitz and me to the Great Apes Building to show them off.

There we were enthusiastically welcomed by Husani, the big silverback gorilla, his wife Jabali, his mother-in-law JoRayK and little Georgia, Husani and Jabali’s baby girl who was born last summer on July 6, 2020.

The pandemic didn’t stop the first successful gorilla birth in Hogle Zoo’s 90-year history.

Next door to the gorillas, the zoo’s two resident orangutans — big sister Acara and her brother Tuah — were even more excited.

Hansen, who has been at the zoo for 10 years and knows the animals well, walked up to the glass and called out “Acara.” She didn’t say it loudly, but even though there were a lot of kids and lots of noise, Acara heard, and quickly made her way to the glass to say hi to her friend.

“These guys love it when people show up,” said Hansen. “They love people, they love cameras, they love attention, they love commotion.”

Knowing this, last year when the zoo was shut down for those 50 days straight, the zookeepers brought an exercise video to the Great Apes Building and did a full-on Zumba workout in front of the primates.

It was quite a sight, remembered Hansen: A bunch of humans cavorting and gyrating while the apes came to the glass and gawked. “It was my favorite moment of the year.”

“I think the zoo’s done a good job of surviving,” she said. “It’s been a very tough year for staff, we saw some layoffs, we saw some restructuring. But thanks to the support of our community and the dedication of our animal care team, the animals did great. And now we’re all ready to get our crowds back.”