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Maryland Zoo reopens to public with precautions for people and animals

Visitors to The Maryland Zoo welcomed a sense of normalcy Saturday as it reopened to the public with precautions in place not only for visitors, but for lions, tigers, chimps and otters.

After months of being cooped up due to the coronavirus, mask-wearing guests were back gazing at the animals on a warm day at Druid Hill Park. The animals stared right back.

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Nearly 2,100 people booked slots online to visit Saturday following three days of previews reserved for zoo members.

“On the first day, the penguins were all lined up against the glass,” zoo spokeswoman Claire Aubel said. “The chimps were lined up too. I think visitors provide them a little entertainment.”

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The pandemic has necessitated some procedural changes since the zoo closed down in mid-March after Gov. Larry Hogan prohibited large gatherings to curb the spread of the virus.

Guests were required to register for timed entries online so the zoo could keep capacity at 50 percent as part of “Phase II” of Baltimore’s reopening plan. Masks were encouraged, but not required except for at select “pinch points” where crowds tended to cluster.

The carousel was closed, as was a playground, a shuttle service on the property for visitors, and a program in which guests interact with chimpanzee trainers. Signs cautioned kids not to climb on statues depicting animals.

“Please stay 6 feet apart,” said blue lettering on the sidewalk near the penguins’ display. A drawing of four webbed penguin feet illustrated the point.

The public, relieved at the availability of an outdoor attraction, didn’t seem to mind the restrictions.

“They’re very excited,” said Jamie Scates of Annapolis, who came with her family, including daughters ages 6 and 9. “Their goal is to see every animal.”

Dean Gedansky, 14, of Baltimore, said he was aiming to see the baby cheetahs and penguins.

“I never really left the house,” Gedansky said. “I’m glad to go out somewhere so I can stop slowly going insane.”

His mother, Christine Gedansky, said a zoo trip was perfect for the times.

“We’re outdoors, we can keep separate from people. The air is clear and we’re not getting near the animals,” she said. “We were actually wondering if the tigers were okay.”

More than a half-dozen “big cats” — tigers and lions — have tested positive at the Bronx Zoo in New York City for the virus that causes COVID-19.

At the Maryland Zoo, officials “have not seen signs of any of our animals getting sick,” said Margaret Rose-Innes, an assistant general curator. “We would expect to see similar kinds of things that you would see with humans, where they would have a cough and it would affect their respiratory system.”

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But Rose-Innes said the zoo was taking no chances. A special barrier was installed to keep visitors further back than normal from the lions.

The zoo also is keeping a close eye on chimpanzees and otters.

“We had the keepers start to wear masks and socially distance from the chimps as much as possible,” Rose-Innes said. “Those keepers are always careful because they can transmit colds to the chimps.”

The chimps’ barriers didn’t need to be altered because they already provide ample protection.

On Saturday, passersby looked through the glass and cooed at Lola, a chimp who is nearly a year old, and her mother, Bunny. Lola is named for a Looney Tunes cartoon character who often portrayed Bugs Bunny’s girlfriend.

Because of the closure, the zoo lost between $4 million and $5 million — 25 to 35 percent of its annual budget, according to Kirby Fowler, the zoo’s incoming president and CEO.

“The shame of it all is March-April-May-June are the strongest months for us,” Fowler said.

But the zoo said it had more than 1,500 guests Wednesday, followed by 1,800 Thursday and about 2,100 Friday.

“You can experience the zoo fully without touching anything,” Fowler said. “We’re in a particularly good position when it comes to addressing COVID concerns.”

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