Gorillas tuck into veggie breakfast at ZSL London Zoo
Jimmy the gibbon with presents
Jimmy the gibbon with presents. Photograph: © ZSL London Zoo

Lockdown’s been tough for everyone and has hit London Zoo with a loss of more than a £20 million, but many of the animals of course seem to take it in their stride.

The lions haven’t noticed much of a change but Jimmy the gibbon, who is a natural performer, can’t wait for an audience to show off his acrobatic skills.

Zookeeper Glynn Hennessy prepares breakfast for the gorillas
Zookeeper Glynn Hennessy prepares breakfast for the gorillas. Photograph: © ZSL London Zoo

Keeper Glynn Hennessy has worked at the zoo for 21 years. He lives on site with some colleagues who stayed at the zoo during lockdown to continue caring for the animals.

Whilst many office and front-of-house staff were furloughed, more than 100 zookeepers, vets and grounds staff  continued working.

Mr Hennessy said: “It’s now our third lockdown, so by now the animals that noticed a lack of visitors at first are more used to the sudden extended emptiness, but some of them are missing the public still – especially Jimmy the gibbon, who still spends his days showing off his climbing skills to people over the boundary fence in Regent’s Park. “An attention seeker by nature, Jimmy will be particularly pleased when the public can return to visit.”

However people on their daily exercise walking past the zoo have spotted Jimmy, as well as camels and warthogs. “It’s made us happy to see people still engaging with wildlife, even if they haven’t been able to visit the zoo,” said Mr Hennessy.

Jimmy has been at London Zoo most of his life and turned 30 last year during the first lockdown. He lives at the Zoo with his son, Yoda, and got a special birthday treat.

“Keepers made Jimmy and Yoda a new swing for their home during the lockdown, giving it to them on Jimmy’s birthday and celebrating the big day by giving him his breakfast wrapped up for him to open. He loved it.” said Mr Hennessy.

Gorillas tuck into veggie breakfast at ZSL London Zoo
Gorillas tuck into veggie breakfast at ZSL London Zoo. Photograph: © ZSL London Zoo

The gorillas have also noticed a change: “Mums Mjukku, 22, and Effie, 26, and youngsters Alika, 6, and Gernot, 5, have always loved to watch our visitors, paying particular attention to people’s outfits, hairstyles and shoes, and they’ve also noticed the difference with the zoo being closed,” he added. 

“During the first lockdown they were climbing to the top of their tall treehouse climbing frame to try and see where all the people were – now they’re used to it, but each time we’ve reopened they’ve clearly been happy to be able to people-watch again.

Keeper Poppy Tooth gives pygmy goats extra attention during lockdown
Keeper Poppy Tooth gives pygmy goats extra attention during lockdown. Photograph: © ZSL London Zoo

And keeper Poppy Tooth, who has been at the zoo for two years, said some animals really missed interacting with the public.

“The pygmy goats Elly, Hick, Bumpkin, Potticus, Brambles and Holly have probably missed the public the most – during the first lockdown they continued to line up at the gate to their home, waiting for the public to arrive and give them their usual pats and strokes.” she said.

“To help them, zookeepers devised a massage rota, taking in turns to regularly visit them and give them extra attention throughout the day, which has continued throughout all the lockdowns

“The goats even go on walks around the zoo during the day, visiting some of the other animals, such as the llamas. The kune kune pigs Kiri and Reka, Bactrian camel Noemie and even our eagle owl, Max, go on regular excursions too, which is really enriching for them.” 

Lockdown has meant that keepers can spend even more time with the animals, as they didn’t have to do tasks such as cleaning windows before the public arrived, and educating the public.

“But the flip side is that we miss this part of our jobs as we really enjoy seeing people experiencing nature and wildlife. We are devoted to the animals we care for, and love to share our love of the natural world with people of all ages,” said Poppy.

Zookeeper Kate Sanders with Asiatic lion
Zookeeper Kate Sanders with Asiatic lion. Photograph: © ZSL London Zoo

Meanwhile, some of the bigger animals including Sumatran tigers Asim and Gaysha and Asiatic lions: Heidi, Indi, Rubi and Bhanu, haven’t missed people at all

Big cats team leader Kathryn Sanders said: “Our big cats haven’t noticed the difference during lockdown, and have continued to spend their time snoozing on their heated rocks and playing together, but some animals did – all the animals definitely reacted differently according to their different personalities.”

Otter pup and mum Mathilda
Otter pup and mum Mathilda. Photograph: © ZSL London Zoo

The zoo greeted new arrivals during the first lockdown as the  Asian short-clawed otters Pip and Tilly welcomed two pups. It boosted keepers’ spirits and they emerged from their holts after the first six weeks of life – just in time for the zoo’s reopening in July 2020, giving visitors “a lovely surprise when they saw how the family had grown”.   

But Ms Sanders said this long period of closure has been tough. “It was the first time we’d been closed since the Blitz closed us in World War 2 – and back then we were asked to reopen to boost public morale within two weeks. Being closed for so long was unprecedented and it was eerie having the zoo empty of happy families. 

“But we adapted – socially distancing from each other while we worked and focusing on caring for each other and the animals, as we’ve always done.  

“It’s been sad having the zoo closed for so long. But for us, it definitely helped our mental health to have something so important to focus on during the lockdowns – the care of our animals, many of which are threatened in the wild and are part of vitally important breeding programmes.”

Zookeepers unload fresh deliveries.
Zookeepers unload fresh deliveries. Photograph: © ZSL London Zoo

It costs £1million a month to feed all 20,000 animals at London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo and the loss of income has hit their coffers hard.

A typical food bill for the month at London Zoo alone is £22,000 for just the fruit and vegetables. Per month, food delivery at London includes, but is not limited to: 500 boxes of sweet potato, 3,000 cucumbers, 300 melons, 18 bunches of baby beetroots and 215 corn on the cobs.

Zookeeper Kate Sanders prepares food for the animals
Zookeeper Kate Sanders prepares food for the animals. Photograph: © ZSL London Zoo

And whilst food deliveries continued for a while, staff struggled to get “browse” – tree branches which are snapped up by giraffes,  okapis and camels. But the team at Regent’s Park helped out when they pruned their plants.

As Mr Hennessy  said: “We drove into the park and loaded up with the offcuts – the whole team was so excited with the haul. Honestly, you’ve never seen a group of people get so excited about tree branches.”

London Zoo Chief Operating Officer Kathryn England
London Zoo Chief Operating Officer Kathryn England. Photograph: © ZSL London Zoo / Will Amlot

London Zoo’s chief operating officer Kathryn England explained that after last year’s £20 million loss in income “this extended closure will now see us lose a further £6 million of income in 2021″. The zoo uses its income to fund its research and conservation work.

Dominic Jermey, Director General of  the Zoological  Society London, said: “Zoos rely on their visitors to fund their work – from caring for the animals, to the global conservation of endangered species and critical research and education projects. Our impact is far-reaching, and our work is vital.  

“The Easter weekend is traditionally the launch of our peak season. Outdoor, open-air attractions in the spring season would normally see our doors flung open to visitors. But we’re now facing the prospect of a second Easter bank holiday in a row with no people – and no income.”

He urged the Government to use a £93 million Zoo Animal Fund which  remains unspent, to support zoos throughout the country. “Don’t let us slip through the net – the planet’s wildlife needs us,” he said.

Lockdown rules dictate that the zoo can reopen on 12 April at the earliest.

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