Aluna, who was born in June, watches members of her family tear palm leaves apart. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin

The Oakland Zoo reopened to the public on July 29 after being closed for more than four months, the longest closure since it first opened almost 100 years ago. Visitors can now see new members of the zoo’s animal family, including a baby baboon named Aluna. Born in June, Aluna is never too far from her mother’s sight. Also new to the zoo’s family are seven new bison calves and a two-year-old giraffe. 

“Just a few weeks ago, we were at great risk of losing a lot of money and potentially even closing,” said Nik Dehejia, the zoo’s executive vice president. “With the opening, we’ve moved beyond the surviving phase and we’re now looking at a long-term recovery over the next several years.” 

Financial recovery

About 1,300 to 1,700 people visited the zoo on its first two days after reopening. Over the past weekend, attendance rose to roughly 2,400 each day, but this is still only about 30% of the usual number of visitors. The county’s health order requires reduced capacity to prevent crowding inside.

“We are selling out and we have, as a result, just opened up tickets for the next two weeks,” said Dehejia. “People can now reserve tickets further out on a rolling 14-day basis.”

Jason Johns (right), hasn’t been to the zoo since he was six and said now that he’s older, he has a deeper appreciation for the animals. Johns and his friend Alphonso Mitchell searched high and low for the sun bears in their dense habitat. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin

All of the indoor facilities like the bug exhibit, the California Trail Visitor Center, and amphibian and invertebrate displays are still closed to the public to comply with health regulations. Closed also are the rides in Adventure Landing, and all of the zoo’s playgrounds and petting yards. Although food can be purchased, there is no indoor seating.

Also cancelled was Zoo Camp, a popular program for youth that generates roughly $600,000 in revenue every year. More than a thousand children across Alameda and Contra Costa Counties come for the zoo-centered activities during the summer, spring and winter. 

Zoo Camp teen assistant Michelle Pluth visited the park on Friday, July 31 with her mother, Marilyn, a former Oakland Zoo volunteer. “I really do want to stick with the zoo,” said Michelle. “It’s been a part of my life forever.”

Marilyn and Michelle Pluth visited the dromedary camels over the weekend. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin

Michelle said she volunteered for one week of virtual Zoo Camp before it was cancelled. She and her mother have been hoping for the best while contributing to zoo fundraisers. 

“I was heartbroken to think the zoo would close,” said Marilyn. “We’ve been rooting for them.”

Okay, but what about the animals?

A gibbon watches zoos visitors from a shady branch. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin

Visitors can still see many of the zoo’s 750 mammals and birds. Other than its oldest living animal, a 140-year-old tortoise named OJ, most of its reptiles are still behind closed doors. 

Some species, like the chimpanzees, have habitats cordoned off with signs alerting visitors of their susceptibility to COVID-19. Zoo spokesperson Isabella Linares said none of the zoo’s animals were affected by the virus. The animals will be tested for the virus if they display any symptoms.

In late April, the zoo received a two-year-old giraffe named Kijiji, a curious female that stands at “only” 11 feet tall, from a Kansas zoo. Also new are endangered California condors.

While staff were extra attentive with animals to compensate for the absence of visitors, particularly with those who enjoy the presence of people, there were some deaths in the zoo family. A zebra named Jumokey died in April—she would have turned 24 on August 18. Jumokey was born and raised at the Oakland Zoo. According to Dehejia, several giraffes also recently passed away.

One of the zoo’s Aldabra tortoises, which can live to be over 100 years old. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin
A grizzly bear swimming. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin

Now that the doors have reopened, Linares said zookeepers have noticed a change in behavior in some animals. 

“Any new movement of people excites some of the animals, like the bears, otters and giraffes,” said Linares, who pointed out that the grizzly bears have spent a lot of time in the water next to the glass display. They definitely recognize when people are around and any slight interaction with the crowd is enriching for them.”

The zoo workforce returns, slowly but surely

A siamang gibbon resting in a thoughtful pose. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin

The zoo was forced to lay off 120 part-time and seasonal staff in April. Then, at the end of June, the zoo let go 15 full-time staff members. “We haven’t been able to bring back all the staff that we let go and that’s something that’s part of our long-term recovery,” said Dehejia. “None were furloughed because we were uncertain as to when the zoo would be able to open.”

The zoo was able to keep over 60 full-time animal keepers and veterinary staff (while continuing to spend a million dollars every month for the care and protection of the animals). With the limited reopening, 25 staff were able to return to assist with operations.

Zoo staff operating the gondolas that carry visitors over the tops of oak trees and fields of bison. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin
A staff member caring for some of the zoo’s lemurs. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin

When a $2.7 million federal loan through the Paycheck Protection Program ran out in July, the zoo was forced to institute an organization-wide pay reduction for staff. It’s not business as usual from an economic standpoint, but the zoo continues to actively fundraise through their own fundraisers like LollapaZOOla on July 25, which brought in over $500,000, and with the help of locals like six-year-old Andy Soulard, who raised more than $223,000

A California condor. Credit: Sarah Belle Lin

“We are approaching our 100th anniversary for the zoo in 2022,” said Dehejia. “We want to be here another hundred years.” Non-member general admission tickets are $24 for adults, $20 for children and seniors, and free for children under two and seniors over 76.

Correction: We previously misspelled the last name of Michelle and Marilyn Pluth.

Sarah Belle Lin is an independent journalist and photographer based in the East Bay.