By Catarina Demony
LISBON (Reuters) – Wearing a mask and other protective gear, a zookeeper at Portugal’s biggest zoo feeds a mob of energetic meerkats, including a few newborns – but the usual excited onlookers are nowhere to be seen.
Though the meerkats and other 2,000 animals at the Lisbon zoo are missing the normal attention from crowds of visitors now stuck at home due to the coronavirus lockdown, keepers are doing their best to provide company and nurture.
“The work we do now the zoo is closed is exactly the same as what we used to do when the zoo was open,” zoo curator Jose Dias Ferreira told Reuters as a group of gorillas played behind him.
“We closed doors to the public but animal care, cleaning and feeding is the same.”
The zoo closed when Portugal declared a lockdown on March 18, shutting all non-essential services, from restaurants to cultural spaces. But the contingency plan at Lisbon zoo was put together way before.
Ferreira said the zoo had to stock up on animal food in case increased demand during the pandemic caused a shortage. For now food supply remains plentiful, but the future is uncertain.
No visitors means no ticket sales, leaving Lisbon zoo and others in a tight spot – especially as high maintenance costs are not going away.
“KEEP OUR ANIMALS SAFE”
Even if the lockdown ends soon and the zoo is able to reopen, it might be a while until people start visiting again given social distancing norms, anxiety among the public and a drop in foreign tourists.
“At the moment we have no problems but I cannot guess the future,” Ferreira said. “The only thing missing now is the visitors but animals can rapidly adapt to the situation.”
Portugal has so far reported 22,353 coronavirus cases and 820 deaths, a relatively low toll, especially compared to hard-hit neighbouring Spain.
Around the world, animals are being affected too.
Earlier this month, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive for the coronavirus, the first known case of a human infecting an animal and making it sick.
Ferreira said it was unclear if some animals were more at risk than others so the zoo’s preventive measures were applied to all.
To reduce risk, there are more disinfections, the use of masks and gloves was made compulsory, especially when near animals, and zookeepers were split into two rotating teams.
“The top priority is to keep our animals (…) and the people who work with them safe,” Ferreira said.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Rafael Marchante; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Andrew Cawthorne)