Cleveland Metroparks Zoo bringing a summer of socially distanced normalcy to guests

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo reopened on June 17 following a three-month closure brought on by COVID-19.


Although policies and procedures at the zoo have changed, a loving stewardship of wildlife coupled with a desire to share the wonders of the natural world remains strong.


“That passion continues regardless of what’s happening with the pandemic,” says executive director Chris Kuhar. “Our staff was here every day taking care of the animals, and [they] have done an amazing job throughout all of this.”


The zoo relaunched with its maximum daily visitor capacity reduced by about 75%—or a cutoff of approximately 4,000 guests. Non-members were initially required to make reservations either online or at the box office in advance of their visits, but the zoo dropped this process last weekend after weeks of not reaching max capacity.


Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Rhino ReserveTo further allow for social distancing, as well as recognize operational constraints caused by the coronavirus pandemic, various indoor locations and attractions will stay closed for the immediate future.


However, outdoor habitats across the zoo’s 183 acres—including the newly dedicated Daniel Maltz Rhino Reserve—are open for public viewing thanks to new measures separating guests from both each other and the beasties themselves.


While the rollout has been understandably measured, zoo officials are happy to safely welcome back guests after months away.


“We closed on March 16; at the time there were a lot of unknowns,” Kuhar says. “We didn’t know the true spread of the virus or how it was spread. We shut down days before the government shut everything down.”


A limited (if successful) launch

The zoo did not qualify for financial aid during its closure, instead it turned to supporters for donations. To bring in additional revenue, the zoo in May began a drive-thru “Cruise the Zoo” program—an event so popular that Metroparks officials paused ticket sales after demand caused technical problems.


Today, a portion of Kuhar’s workforce is furloughed, an unfortunate side-effect of running at a quarter of normal attendance. The executive director and his staff used the reopening practices of other zoos around the country as a template—conferring with colleagues nationwide on best practices such as masking, hygiene, and operating exhibit areas with one-way directional flow to foster social distancing.


Handwashing stations are located across the grounds, while staff is frequently sanitizing high-touch areas.


Asian Lantern Festival“There’s not going to be 12,000 people here, so it’s a different experience,” says Kuhar. “It feels very spacious. We’re encouraging folks to come out and we’ve gotten a lot of positive responses so far.”


But limited staffing has closed some indoor spaces. Separately, The RainForest’s 10,000 plants and 600 animals are on public hiatus as construction continues on its geodesic dome. Upon its scheduled completion this fall, the new dome will offer improved lighting, energy efficiency, and animal habitats.


Making a connection

In the meantime, visitors are enjoying reconfigured exhibits and events like the expanded rhino reserve. Renovations doubled the size of the caretaking space for the critically endangered Eastern black rhinoceros, populations of which have declined dramatically due to rampant poaching.


Guests can now watch their favorite horned ungulates explore misting areas, a mud wallow and rubbing posts—simulating environments that the rhinos would have in their native Kenya and Tanzania.


The area also features a fully accessible viewing deck, perfect for appreciating the two new calves bred onsite by the zoo in 2018.


“Rhinos are an important species for us—by supporting us, you support conservation,” says Kuhar. “New exhibits give us a platform to talk about conservation.”


Another crowd favorite—the Asian Lantern Festival—returned to the zoo on July 8. The ongoing event, now in its third year, arrived with 70 new lantern displays that include a 200-foot-long phoenix strung across a lake.


Asian food and beverages are paired with acrobatic performances, though social distancing requirements are curtailing attendance until the festival closes at the end of August. Beginning this coming Monday, August 10, the zoo is adding four drive-through dates for visitors who prefer viewing the colorful display from the comfort of their vehicles.


Dinosaurs Around the World: The Great Outdoors exhibitionAttendees also get entry into the Dinosaurs Around the World: The Great Outdoors exhibition with purchase of each festival ticket.


Rethinking programming around crowd sizes, sanitation and face mask mandates is a special challenge for an entity that best thrives as a scientific and educational resource for people of all ages.


Kuhar says he expects further adjustments will be made in providing North East Ohioans—especially younger residents—some sense of normalcy during these fraught and uncertain times.


“Kids are excited to see the animals and make that connection again,” says Kuhar. “We have digital content, but it’s that live connection that sets zoos apart from traditional museums. We’ll keep adapting our programs to provide safe opportunities for folks to come out and experience that.”

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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