A pandemic year at London Zoo

NHS sign at the Giraffe House at London Zoo

NHS sign at the Giraffe House at London Zoo - Credit: ZSL

As London Zoo reopens after the third lockdown, ZSL Director General Dominic Jermey looks back on a pandemic year at the Regent's Park attraction.

Little did I know on March 21 last year, what lay ahead as we closed the gates to London Zoo for the first time since World War Two. Behind closed doors, Bhanu the lion continued to roar. White cheeked gibbons Jimmy and Yoda sang their morning song. But without visitors, the zoo was eerily quiet. Two days later, we entered the first national ‘lockdown’, and the whole of London fell quiet around us.

London Zoo's front gate during lockdown

London Zoo's front gate during lockdown - Credit: ZSL London Zoo

From the start I was struck by the irony of ZSL having warned against the dangers of wildlife diseases - including coronaviruses - for decades. In 2005, ZSL’s Professor Andrew Cunningham wrote in the British Medical Journal on the human exploitation of wildlife heightening pandemic risk; a paper he co-authored in 2013 identified 137 bat viruses of which 61 were capable of infecting people.

Inside the zoo, our devoted zookeepers, vets and grounds team ensured life went on as normal - feeding and caring for our 18,000 animals, from the tiniest leafcutter ant to the tallest giraffe. No one expected that a year later we would still be battling the knock-on effects of the pandemic. 

Socially distanced zookeepers at ZSL London Zoo

Socially distanced zookeepers at ZSL London Zoo - Credit: ZSL London Zoo

Most of the animals were blissfully unaware that anything was different, while others clearly missed our visitors. Zookeepers made sure they were given extra attention; pygmy goats Elly, Hick, Potticus, Brambles and Bumpkin, who missed being stroked, and Jimmy the gibbon, now famous among Regent’s Park walkers for his attention-seeking displays over the boundary fence.

Other teams focused on fundraising and continuing our science and conservation work where possible. Keepers filmed video diaries, sharing clips on social media and answering live questions – while people shared images of giraffes Maggie and Molly, and Bactrian camels Noemie and Genghis they could see during their daily exercise.

Jimmy the gibbon has become a favourite with Regent's Park walkers showing off over the boundary fence

Jimmy the gibbon has become a firm favourite with Regent's Park walkers showing off over the boundary fence - Credit: ZSL London Zoo

This was a crisis moment for ZSL. No income from visitors threatened our very existence, putting our conservation and science projects at risk. We needed to do something fast. With the support of Sir David Attenborough, we launched the largest fundraising campaign in ZSL history to cover the £1million a month to feed and care for the animals at both our zoos. Bill Bailey, Jonathan Ross, Meera Syal and Catherine Tate lent their voices for light-hearted television ads to boost the appeal.

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Our suppliers supported us magnificently: fresh fruit and veg delivered thrice weekly from Covent Garden Market. And when supplies of browse - leafy branches, eaten continuously by camels, giraffes, gorillas and okapi - were interrupted, zookeepers worked with the Royal Parks to collect their prunings – a lovely example of adapting to extraordinary times. 

London Zoo

Zookeepers unload fresh deliveries - Credit: ZSL London Zoo

To get the message out about the challenges we faced, we invited a small camera crew to capture life during lockdown for a documentary which aired in September. It was important to record this time for posterity, just as we kept records of how the team protected the animals from the Blitz.

We erected a giant illuminated NHS logo on London Zoo’s Giraffe House - a symbol of lockdown visible to emergency services teams who stopped for well-deserved lunchbreaks on the road outside the zoo. And there were new arrivals, two baby Asian short-clawed otters, and two charismatic Babirusa pigs Beth and Budi instantly captured hearts, while our conservation team rescued an illegally trafficked baby pangolin in Thailand – a species maligned as a possible cause of the pandemic. The team named her ‘Hope’, an expression of sentiment for her survival and our own.

Vets performed life-saving surgery on Indi the lioness, after keepers noticed the nine-year-old was off her food. An X-ray revealed a piece of rib bone lodged in her gut, and an emergency operation was carried out at the zoo’s hospital to remove it. 

Indi the lioness during an emergency operation to remove a rib bone from her gut

Indi the lioness during an emergency operation to remove a rib bone from her gut - Credit: ZSL

Reopening in June 2020 was a moment of undiluted joy, but the financial challenge remained. Limiting our capacities to 2,000 daily visitors to ensure social distancing meant we had little hope of quickly clawing back losses. Unable to access the Government’s restrictive £100million Zoo Animal Fund, we secured a bank loan - a lifeline, but one that will impact us financially for years to come.   

Social distance markers being laid at ZSL London Zoo in June 2020

Social distance markers being laid at ZSL London Zoo in June 2020 - Credit: ZSL London Zoo

In autumn we welcomed an Endangered baby okapi, Ede - mum Oni’s 16-month pregnancy had been carefully monitored throughout lockdown with ultrasounds. But as travel restrictions tightened, we had to postpone our yearly reintroduction of a formerly Extinct-in-the-Wild species, the partula snail, to French Polynesia.

Ede the okapi was born at London Zoo in autumn 2020

Ede the okapi was born at London Zoo in autumn 2020 - Credit: ZSL London Zoo

Outside our gates coronavirus cases were climbing. A second nationwide lockdown in November was devastating: we had been counting on Christmas to raise funds, and on December 4 we were excited to reopen as a festive wonderland with decorations and one-way trails. But as London plunged into Tier 4, we had to close again.   

With the return of homeschooling zookeepers came up with an ingenious idea to help families: Tails from the Zoo, a bedtime story read by keepers and broadcast on Facebook in front of real animals.  

Vicky Fyson reads Storm Whale at London Zoo

Vicky Fyson reads Storm Whale at London Zoo - Credit: ZSL London

Spending a second Easter break closed was a disappointment which has been keenly felt across the charity. By reopening day on April 12, London Zoo will have been closed for 29 weeks and cost the charity an estimated £26million in lost revenue. We’ve raised an incredible £6.8m of that, thanks to generous members of the public. But we’ve a long way to go and will need help for years to come.

I am incredibly proud of the ZSL team for keeping our animals safe and well-cared for during the toughest year in our history. We will rebuild and emerge from the bleakness of the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve been a part of our local community for almost 200 years, and with your support, are determined to be for at least 200 more. We can't wait to see you all at the zoo very soon.

Support ZSL by becoming a member, booking a flexi-ticket or making a donation at https://www.zsl.org/support-us/donate-to-zs