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Peoria Zoo staff—and animals—eager to return to normalcy

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Provided Photo
Peoria Zoo Staff
The Siberian tiger at the Peoria Zoo was a little anxious about the public's return, but soon adjusted to the normal routine, according to Zookeeper Kenny Lemon.

The Peoria Zoo was closed for over two months in 2020, and now almost two years later, they are excited to be getting back to normal.

Zoo Director Yvonne Strode says that, like many other businesses, they did not have much warning when closures were announced—but the staff came together to devise an action plan.

“The animals didn’t go away, so we had to take care of them,” said Strode.

To ensure the animals would continue a regular schedule of care, Zoo leaders divided staff into two teams who would work opposite schedules to minimize potential quarantine time. If any members of the opposite teams were ever on-site simultaneously, they were diligent in avoiding contact.

“The thinking was that [if] one team got COVID, or got exposed, you might have that whole team out, so the other team would then have to work seven days a week, which was kind of a frightening thing,” said Strode. “We went out and bought a portable shower and everything else just in case we had to spend the night here. We didn’t know how bad it was going to get.”

Zookeeper Kenny Lemon says that missing chances to make connections with visitors was hard on everyone—including the animals.

“There was definitely a change in behaviors with a lot of my animals,” said Lemon, who oversees the Siberian tiger, takins, muntjacs, tortoise, and bats. “When we have a vet in, that’s really the only time they see us wearing any masks. We didn’t have negative reactions, per se, but you could definitely tell that their behaviors had changed a little bit just seeing us in masks.”

Zookeeper Regan Slonecker oversees the lions, zebras, river hogs, colobus monkeys, and mandrills, and she says that when the Zoo was allowed to reopen after over two months, some of her animals were especially eager.

“[The mandrills] definitely did notice when people came back,” said Slonecker. “When we opened back up, they were really interested [and] spent a lot more time at the front of the exhibit so they could see people more.”

Lemon says that some of the animals under his care were a little more anxious about the return of the crowds.

“When people slowly started coming back, that’s when I really started to recognize it,” said Lemon. “Slowly, as more public came, they kind of got back into the rhythm of having people here.”

There was plenty of work to be done for the safety of guests as well, from disabling water fountains to marking a one-way path throughout the property, to placing extra barriers around certain exhibits.

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Provided Photo
Peoria Zoo Staff
Zoo staff placed animal-themed signs around the property to remind guests to keep their distance from each other.

“It was just kind of strange having people come back in here when you had had all the bathrooms to yourself and everything all to yourself,” said Strode with a laugh.

Zoo staff also had to shift their mindset after having been isolated for so long. Making connections with the guests is a priority, but Slonecker says there were some mental hoops to jump through being in a pandemic where distance was the key to safety.

“You want to make a connection with them so they care about these animals outside of the zoo also, so it was a little bit difficult at first to be able to feel, ‘I am safe, I am fine, I can talk and be okay with that,’” said Slonecker. “Just trying to get over that pandemic stress to be okay with those situations at first was really kind of difficult.”

Nonetheless, between the closure, canceled “Keeper Chats,” a lack of field trips, and other postponed events, attendance at the Zoo for 2020 was down 55% compared to 2019. Strode says that daily paid attendance is their biggest source of revenue, so with numbers down, being part of the Peoria Park District allowed them to rely on support from a wider revenue stream. Attendance started to return to normal levels in 2021, down only 11% for the year.

“I think people were glad to get outside; they felt comfortable, they knew we had taken all these precautions,” said Strode. “They saw us as a safe place to get outside with their families.”

For the animals, staff continue to take precautions like wearing masks when interacting and handling food. No animals at the Peoria Zoo have contracted COVID-19, and Strode says they are on a waitlist for access to vaccinations for the big cats, who have been found to be most susceptible to the disease.

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Provided Photo
Peoria Zoo Staff
Zoo staff wear masks when interacting with animals and preparing their food.

Looking forward, with more events on the calendar and COVID-19 numbers slowing, the attitude at the Zoo is positive. Slonecker encourages visitors to take time to talk with the staff and help share the love for the animals living here in Peoria.

“If I look like I’m busy and you have a question—ask me,” said Slonecker. “I’m there to make sure that you’re also having a good time, and I’m here to educate you and share my animal experiences with you and I love when people share their experiences at the zoo with me, too.”

Strode is especially thankful for the community support, and hopes that the work done at the Zoo makes an impact.

“We certainly appreciate the public coming back. That’s why we do what we do,” said Strode. “We love the animals…but if the public doesn’t come and see them and learn and care, they needn’t be here.”

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Mike Rundle is a correspondent at WCBU. He joined the station in 2020.