Coronavirus has touched all our lives and the zoo world is no different. Big visitor attractions with lots of people gathering together are obviously going to have to change. The amazing thing is that, at our visit to Yorkshire Wildlife Park (review here), I was struck by how normal the zoo experience felt.
Obviously you can’t miss the new one way systems shown by traffic cones and plastic banners. You also can’t miss the need to buy tickets online (you’d be disappointed if you had). However you might overlook an absence of animal feedings or the fact you don’t have a paper map. Spotting something that isn’t there is always going to be harder than spotting something that is.
1. No more tickets on the door
Almost every UK Zoo now requirs you to buy tickets online. This is quite a big shift for some smaller zoos which might not have even had this option in the first place. It isn’t actually mandatory in any of the government guidelines but it is does make a huge difference in a few areas…
Firstly it stops crowds at the ticket office. The biggest ally of coronavirus is groups of people so anything you can do to reduce crowds will make a place safer.
Secondly it stops a lot of contact. Think about the last time you bought a ticket to enter a zoo or any visitor attraction for that matter. You hand over cash. Contact. You get a receipt. Contact. You get your entrance ticket. Contact. You might have got a park map. Contact. The contact points quickly add up. When we visited Yorkshire Wildlife Park I just read out my confirmation code through a pane of glass. No contact at all.
Thirdly it helps to space out visitors. People who buy on the door will typically arrive at the zoo around 9.30-11.30. This creates a spike in visitor numbers which zoos don’t want right now. Online booking allows you to give visitors timeslots which is a good way of spreading out those people.
Cash has been on the way out for a while and Coronavirus may just have been the last nail in its coffin. Most of the large zoos are now operating a cashless policy so don’t forget to take your card when you go!
I can imagine that this one will stick around. Once you stop accepting cash you no longer need to make trips to the bank to deposit your earnings. You also don’t need to keep a cash machine on site which means no need to pay to have a company maintain it. I don’t think there will be any appetite to bring all that hassle back, especially if visitors have gotten used to a more cash-free society.
3. Paper park maps
I love a good map. There is just something magical about taking a creased piece of shiny paper out of a coat pocket and trying to work out where you are. For a while now zoos have put their park maps online but you could always rely on getting your own paper copy when you got to the front door.
Now it seems the paper map has disappeared. I totally understand the need to reduce contact but I really hope they come back at some point. The first reason why is practical… my phone runs out of battery too quickly when I’m constantly using it for the map. The second reason is emotional… I think zoo maps are fun souvenirs to take away from a day out.
4. Visitor numbers
Something else you might not notice is that there are fewer people than usual. Gone are the days of huge crowds taking up all the space at the windows of the lion enclosure or having to queue to get into Chester Zoo bat house.
Right now, zoos are operating at between 50% and 75% of full capacity. Due to the online ticketing system this is now phased through the day so at peak times a zoo could have almost half the people. As a visitor this is great but I would be a bit nervous if I was the finance director.
Toilets are a high use, high risk area. This means they need a lot of cleaning which, in turn, means either more cleaning staff or fewer toilets. It doesn’t help that toilets have previously been designed to accommodate a number of people at once. In every toilet block that remains open, every other sink and every other urinal will have to be closed to allow for social distancing.
Toilets won’t disappear completely though – a recent BIAZA document mentioned that “more than 50% [of potential visitors] would not visit if the toilets are closed and if they do they will spend less time onsite”. No zoo is going to want to risk 50% of its custom in a time where finances are in such difficulty. You might just find that there are longer queues for toilets or that only half the toilet blocks are shut.
6. Animal talks & feedings
Animal talks and feedings are another thing which draw in big crowds. It used to be you could plan your visit around the zoo to hit a number of animal feeding times. This was a sure fire way of actually seeing those reclusive animals like tigers or leopards.
Talks are also a good way to help zoos educate and inspire people. Sharing knowledge of the animal world is usually the number one reason a zoo is founded in the first place. I remember an awesome tiger-feeding when I was little. South Lakes Wildlife Park would put the meat on top of a 6m wooden pole. I hadn’t known tigers could climb but there was this huge beast easily scaling a massive tree trunk right in front of my eyes!
A lot of the information which you get in talks is being shared via apps and via signage (and this does help) but you simply can’t replicate a feeding in a video on an iPhone.
7. Indoor viewing
The science tells us that the virus survives a lot longer indoors on shiny surfaces than it does outdoors on rough surfaces. This means that animal houses which are predominantly glass window based are way more dangerous than looking at an enclosure over a wooden fence exposed to the elements.
Aside from the increased transmission risk from surfaces, there is a particularly big issue where the animal house has a single entrance and exit. One of the ways to avoid bottlenecks is to have clear one way systems. Feedback from zoo visitors is that people actually like a one-way route because it gives structure and means that you don’t miss things on your visit. When you have an old building with a single entrance/exit it makes it difficult to implement a one way route. I you can’t have a one-way route than, at least for now, your only option is to close the animal house.
There is a lot that coronavirus has taken away that you might not spot at first glance. I don’t mind some changes such as spacing out visitor numbers and online bookings. However, I will miss paper maps and animal feedings. What will you miss? Feel free to comment below.