ZSL’s Dominic Jermey reflects on life behind the closed gates of ZSL London Zoo

DOMINIC Jermey, Director General at ZSL, explains how behind the closed gates of our Zoos, life goes on, and you can help us weather the storm. 

Less than two weeks ago, alongside my family, colleagues, and the rest of the country, I watched as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly tightened its grip on the world.

We immediately began making detailed plans, in anticipation of having to make a previously unthinkable decision: to close our two zoos to the public.

Within days the unimaginable became reality, but as heartbreaking as it was to finally press the button, we knew that shutting our gates was the right and responsible thing to do to protect our staff, visitors and animals – and to support our NHS at this difficult time.

It’s been nearly a couple of weeks since that historic moment, but behind the closed gates of ZSL London and Whipsnade Zoos, life goes on.

Three keepers observing social distancing while caring for the animals at ZSL London ZooBehind the scenes at ZSL London Zoo vets have performed routine health checks on Oni the pregnant okapi, Thug the pygmy hippo has continued to receive his daily dental care and when possible, Noemie and Ghengis, the Bactrian camels, have been taken on their regular walks around the Zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo has welcomed a healthy baby Yak, while introductions between our new male Asian elephant Ming Jung and female Donna have been going well – part of an important global breeding programme for the endangered species.

A dedicated team of ZSL staff have kept calm and carried on: chopping food, mucking out dens, checking hooves, and thinking up new and creative activities to keep life for our animals as normal as possible – without our visitors.

Our pygmy goats are particularly missing the extra attention they usually get, so I was glad to hear that keepers are taking it in turns to visit throughout the day and give them a good ear scratch to make up for it.

The lockdown has undeniably presented new and difficult challenges for our charitable mission, but I’ve been nothing but proud of how our staff have faced this unprecedented situation. Zookeepers who can safely travel in on foot, by bike or car have done so; others have slept on-site, with our ZSL London Zoo Lodges – no longer housing excited visitors experiencing a once in a lifetime sleepover at the Zoo – repurposed as staff accommodation, to limit travel across the city as far as possible.

Keepers feeding the meerkats at ZSL London Zoo

I’ve been so deeply heartened by the devotion of our teams. Everyone at ZSL has remained singularly focused on one thing: the care of our animals. Trust us – they’ve got this. But we need your help to support them.

ZSL’s two zoos have been part of British life for nearly two centuries. As a child, HRH The Queen met her first penguin at London Zoo. Sir David Attenborough started his television career working with London Zoo. Generations of families have visited ZSL Whipsnade Zoo with their parents, before growing up and bringing their own little ones to explore the wide-open space of the UK’s largest zoo.

Between them, our zoos have brought animals back from extinction, trained eminent vets, zookeepers, conservationists and scientists and educated and inspired millions of schoolchildren, bringing countless people face-to-face with the natural world.

We opened the world’s first Reptile House in 1849, were proud to appoint the world’s first female reptile and amphibian curator in 1923, and have survived, along with the rest of the country, two world wars.

In fact, we closed for just two weeks at the start of World War Two, before being asked by the UK government to reopen to boost public morale – something we’re eager to do again once it’s safe to do so.

While bombs fell over London, keepers still picked up their shovels and mucked out the hippos. When food shortages hit, staff at Whipsnade Zoo started growing fresh vegetables for our animals – with surplus donated to the Ministry of Food – while in London, keepers appealed to the public for foraged acorns, which were donated by supportive Londoners by the bagload.

It’s this kind of support that 80 years later, we’re now calling on once again.

A keeper cleaning Penguin Beach at ZSL London ZooOn Tuesday 24 March we launched a new fundraising campaign because our zoos need your help. We know that coronavirus has had a huge impact on everyone, but if you can support us with a donation, however large or small, it will really help us weather the storm.

ZSL is a charity, and we rely on donations and ticket sales from our two zoos to carry out our work for wildlife, including the costs of feeding and caring for our 20,000 residents, many of which are endangered species.

We’ve always been proud to be a big part of two special communities in Bedfordshire and London and have been deeply touched by the compassion and solidarity already shown to us by our visitors, members and neighbours.

These are unprecedented times – for the society we live in, for ZSL and for each one of us. Please send us a message to let us know you care. Support us with a donation if you’re able. And be ready to celebrate with us when we open our doors once again.