How Do Animals React When No One Visits the Zoo? We Found Out

The Honolulu Zoo is reopening in phases after learning more about the animals during the monthslong COVID-19 closure.
honolulu zoo reopening


When the Honolulu Zoo closed for nearly three months, the animals and staff spent more time together as they began adjusting to a pandemic reality that includes masks, fewer visitors and a greener, cleaner campus.


In an interview, Honolulu Zoo’s director, Linda Santos, described the animals reacting warily when zookeepers started wearing masks all the time in March. “The animals were really curious and they were sort of very cautious, like, ʻOK, what’s going on?’ Because, normally if you wear a mask, there was going to be a veterinary procedure,” Santos says.


Birds would come closer to peer at the face coverings on the humans, she says, while other animals stared at the keepers looking for cues as to what was happening. “It’s just the fear of something new,” Santos says. The adjustment period lasted for days for the animals, as well as the keepers. “Primates especially, if they can’t see your facial expression, a lot of time they can’t understand what’s going on. It took some time to get used to and a lot of hand gesturing,” Santos says.


The masks are an especially important precaution because viruses can pass between certain animals and humans. “If they have a cold, they can give us a cold,” Santos explains. “We want to make sure that our team is also healthy. We’re practicing high hygiene. We ask them not to come to work if they are sick.”


honolulu zoo


Acting Enterprise Services Director Tracy Kubota says the zoo will continue to evolve in phases. “We’re going to have to really, really be mindful that our keepers and the staff in general and the animals are safe as well as the guests.”


Kubota describes the keepers as the essential workers of the animal kingdom, because many have very specialized knowledge about the species of animals they care for, as well as the characteristics, habits and needs of the individual animals.


The zoo got some good news while most of the city was shut down. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums granted accreditation that had been pulled three years earlier. The association praised the Waikīkī attraction for its role in protecting and caring for the animals while providing meaningful visitor experiences. Santos, who has held the top job for four years, says the designation was earned with staff work and improvements that include this new $2.5 million habitat for the spider monkeys, who were living in a space designed in 1947. 


While the zoo was closed, the staff also was able to clean, refresh and renovate: pressure-washing restrooms, disinfecting trash cans, adding landscaping, trimming trees to open up walkways. “We were able to do things that we normally couldn’t do all at once,” Santos says.


Without guests, the staff also spent more time with animals on exhibit, watching and assessing their behaviors: Are they stressed out? How are they responding to changes?


And they noted a wide range of reactions, even among similar animals. “Some of the animals, they’re looking for that public interaction. They’re not used to having nobody talking to them or looking at them. So, when we walk by, they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m over here,’ trying to get your attention,” Santos says.


Some animals that normally stay toward the back of their habitats behaved differently. “We’ll see animals sitting right up front where they normally wouldn’t be if there was public in the zoo,” Santos says. “There’s two different sides we were seeing.”


honolulu zoo lemurs


Know before you go:

  • Shorter hours of operation: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Entrance closes at 2:30 p.m.

  • Visitors are required to wear a face covering, except for those with prohibitive health conditions and children under 5, or while eating near any concession stand or taking a break in specified lawn areas and physically distanced from others.

  • Follow signs and arrows to control the flow of traffic through exhibits and ease physical distancing.

  • A limited number of people will be allowed in enclosed exhibits such as those for penguins, hippopotamuses, African wild dogs, etc.

  • New hand-washing and sanitizing stations have been added.


Some areas still closed to reduce potential spread of COVID-19: 

  • All water fountains; the Keiki Zoo; playground/play apparatus; Manyara Bird Sanctuary, the walk-in aviary in the savanna; and hippo sculpture.


Read more stories by Robbie Dingeman