After months of only seeing big cats on the Tiger King and Lion King remakes, thousands of people poured into the National Zoo and Aquarium over the weekend to see the real deal after months under COVID-19 lockdown.
Joyous kids and adults alike arrived in droves early Saturday morning for the first time since the Zoo closed in March, spending hours checking out their favourite animals and exhibits – only this time people were keeping their distance from each other as well as the animals.
Jesse Martin and Katie Brewer took their son Jackson – a massive animal lover – for a day out, and hadn’t even made it halfway around the enclosures after two hours, such was his fascination.
“He loves it!” Katie said. “We went to Mogo Zoo before all of this happened and we have been looking at the animals online, so he was very excited, as soon as it was opened we were like ‘yeah, we have to come’”.
As Jackson listed his favourite animals – lions, tigers and rhinos – he had already made a few furry friends by midday.
Cherie Russell also took her children out on Saturday for their first zoo visit in a very long time.
“It is nice weather and we have not been here for ages. We had a bit of cabin fever so we thought we would do something fun,” she said.
“We often go to museums and things, but we have not done anything [like this in a while] so we thought we would put it at the top our list.”
And it wasn’t just the visitors who were excited about the reopening.
“When the people came back, most of the animals and particularly the primates, could not get enough of it! It was like Christmas for them, having so much enrichment to look at,” the Zoo’s business manager, Russell Jackson, said.
“From all of the reactions we were getting from our species they were loving it.”
The Zoo had been closed since March because of the pandemic, and the staff even began eating lunch with the animals to keep them company and socially active after the sudden disappearance of the visitors they were used to.
The great turnout over the weekend showed how special the Zoo is for a lot of Canberrans, Mr Jackson said.
“It really shows how much the zoo means to people. We had a huge reaction on social media. They just could not wait to see the animals that they love. It was really heartening to see the enjoyment,” he said.
“It was busy days. It was similar to what we would see in a school holiday period or an Easter long weekend.”
Extra staff were put on to clean and keep an eye on hotspots and bottlenecks to make sure people were appropriately distanced, and Mr Jackson says he was impressed with the way Canberrans behaved over the weekend.
Only a couple of people were asked to separate because they were distracted by an animal or exhibit and they responded straight away, Mr Jackson said.
“It was really successful, not only because of the good numbers but the way that people adhered to the measures and restrictions in place. We did not have any issues at all.
“As soon as you mentioned [social distancing] people were super quick to separate so all in all we were very, very happy with the way that people behaved. We were confident in our preparations as well and we classify that as a really successful long weekend.
“We had extra staff doing roaming cleaning, some of the handrails that people hold onto more and the toilet handles and all of those touchpoints. We had dedicated staff looking after those all weekend.”
The Zoo is now preparing to open up for the Queen’s Birthday long weekend when more people from NSW are expected to visit the attraction a week after the ACT-only Reconciliation Day long weekend.
“We were very glad to have everyone. The distancing measures worked really well and we will go again for the next long weekend,” Mr Jackson said.
For visiting hours and prices, visit The National Zoo & Aquarium.