National zoo staff locked in to keep Covid out

Hannah Dix has been locked down in the National Zoo to make sure the animals get fed and get company. Picture: Supplied.
Hannah Dix has been locked down in the National Zoo to make sure the animals get fed and get company. Picture: Supplied.

As with everywhere in Canberra, the National Zoo looks very different this week with wildlife staff locked in while the ACT is locked down.

Several essential wildlife and maintenance staff have bunkered down onsite, spending nights away from their friends and families to care for the animals.

Closed to the public since the onset of the outbreak and suffering from the dive in tourism trade well before, the zoo has been keeping its lights on and animals fed thanks to the federal government's Supporting Australia's Exhibiting Zoos and Aquariums Program, due to end in September.

Zoo and aquariums are in a somewhat unique position as they can't simply turn the lights off, lock the doors and walk away.

Russell Jackson

Following a push from ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr at national cabinet on Friday, executive manager Russell Jackson said he'd just been advised the program will be extended until June 2022.

"Zoo and aquariums are in a somewhat unique position as they can't simply turn the lights off, lock the doors and walk away," Mr Jackson said. Most of the overheads remain the same regardless of whether they are open or not. That program has been vital in maintaining the best animal welfare standards throughout the pandemic.

Serena Robbie is one of the zoo's essential workers taking care of the animals while they can't get visits from the public. Picture: Supplied

Serena Robbie is one of the zoo's essential workers taking care of the animals while they can't get visits from the public. Picture: Supplied

"We are very appreciative of the ACT government's support and the chief minister's initiative to speak to the federal government as obviously the situation in NSW and now the ACT will have a major knock-on effect post September."

Thrown another life line, life inside the zoo will tick on throughout lockdown, albeit a little quieter.

Since the gates closed to the public last week, staff have taken it upon themselves to provide extra stimulation to animals in the absence of outside visitors.

"The wildlife team are going out of their way and even volunteering their time to make sure the animals are receiving extra enrichment and activities," Mr Jackson said.

He said for the more social species such as the primates, meerkats and otters not seeing lots of faces around the zoo was strange.

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"They certainly miss them. The big cats like the lions and tigers also look forward to the interaction with the public, so they are getting special attention," Mr Jackson said. "Those that usually have direct interaction with the public, such as the cheetahs, also need additional attention."

Anticipating that the public will miss the animals too, the zoo will be running regular Facebook live events during lockdown to give everyone a chance to check out what's happening inside the enclosures.

"Given the very special nature of our animals and staff we need to take an extra cautious approach to keeping them safe and well, as we have done since the pandemic began," Mr Jackson said.

He said access to Covid Disaster Payments meant the staff who usually looked after the animals would also taken care of.

"Whilst we have had to severely reduce our staffing numbers for both the zoo and Jamala Wildlife Lodge due to restricting entry to essential workers, we have taken steps to ensure that all staff are financially protected for the three week period," Mr Jackson said.

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This story Zoo staff bunker down this week to keep Covid out first appeared on The Canberra Times.