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Silent Spring

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world…

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world. Zoo people want to change the world, but we now find it changed for us – and not in the way we hoped.

All the big problems that previously consumed us – palm oil, climate change, marine plastic, the extinction of species, the destruction of habitats – have been pushed to one side by a microscopic interloper.

Zoos are not critical to the running of the country. We’re not the NHS, or shop workers, or posties – but zoo keepers and zoo vets are their own kind of critical. We have animals to keep healthy, animals that in many cases are part of internationally managed safety-net populations, vital in the fight against extinction in the wild.

Zoo keepers can’t work from home. They have to be on site to clean out, care for and feed the animals. Many zoo keepers are now torn between their human loved ones and the animals for which they live and breathe…

The business model for top zoos is simple: give guests a great day and they give money. This money runs the charity, feeds the animals, pays the staff and funds conservation work at home and overseas. Take away the guests and you upset the model. It’s not unlike the business model of thousands of businesses in all areas of life. The common theme is people. The difference is animals.

During this strange time, this great, global pause in ordinary human existence, there might be short-term gains for air quality, CO2 levels and even one or two persecuted Asian species. Someone at the BBC Natural History Unit told me the market for pangolin meat has crashed, for example, which means this coronavirus is a good thing for the scaly anteater, at least…

When the sun shines and the spring breeze brushes through the blossom, everything seems very nearly OK. But for zoos right now it is, to borrow from a classic of conservation literature, a silent spring. It’s a spring without guests. Our zoos are beautiful ghost-towns. Animals whoop and roar and continue to live just fine – but the sounds of people enjoying that unique zoo experience are missing.

Zoos are often talked about as arks, as refuges of natural wonder, filled with amazing plants and animals that need to be cared for, understood and respected. That metaphor is more appropriate than ever. They are arks sailing on lonely and uncertain seas, with a dedicated and determined skeleton crew.

Our goal is to keep the animals fit and healthy through this dark period, and to plan for the time when we open again and welcome back the Great British public, the people we long to inspire, amaze, inform and engage.

See you on the other side.


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