The Zoo of Human Quarantine Behavior

The other day I played hooky, drove across the river, met a friend for an hour’s walk at Forest Park, met another friend, chatted, picnicked, went back to the parking lot, in a brief concession to the workday, to do a phone interview from my car—and realized I had lost my phone, whose holder also contains all my ID and credit cards. I refuse to say it holds “my life,” but it definitely holds the operating instructions.

The universe—in the form of two extraordinarily nice guys who found the phone, saw my Washington University ID, and drove it over to the Wash.U. police—gave my carelessness a reprieve. But when my heart stopped racing, it occurred to me that I have lost the ability to multitask. Also the ability to be vigilant in public. My wits are no longer about me, because when I work from home, I can leave them lying on the kitchen counter without dire consequences. I just scoop up the wits (or the phone, or the stray idea) and carry on.

Driving home, phone on the dashboard where I could pat it from time to time, I wondered how I would gear up to go to an office again, navigate interpersonal politics, coordinate dozens of in-person interviews and meetings, juggle lists of errands instead of ordering it all on Amazon. At the peak of this worried speculation, I passed the zoo and saw a blur of movement through a notch in the wall. The zoo was open again. How had those guys managed?

I imagined them all breathing a huge sigh of relief. Puttering around in their habitats with no watching eyes, no screaming children. And then, reopening? Was it a shock to their nervous systems? Once home, I call to check.

Dr. Luis Padilla, vice president of animal collections, is also a veterinarian and the former director of animal health. What I really want to know about is how animals like me made the adjustment, rejiggered their brains and their sensorium—but I cannot figure out how to phrase that without embarrassing myself, so I just ask what behavior changes he noticed with closure and reopening.

Many of the animals, he says, seemed to miss the routine of a regular human audience. When I ask which ones, he thinks a minute. “The carnivores who are most in tune to people. The grizzly bears for sure. And the sea lions. Whenever they would see one of us walking on a pathway, they would come out to see who it was, then call attention to themselves. The sea lions would swim in circles and move their heads back and forth. The grizzlies would come into the water and look around the corner as far as they could see. It was clear they were looking for some kind of interaction.”

I grin, thinking of a bubbly, extroverted friend who went a little crazy during lockdown because she, too, was missing all the interaction. Then a terrible thought crosses my mind: Are the carnivores attuned to us because they want to eat us? Later, I will look up grizzly bear habits and find, to my relief, that while they will attack us, it is rare and usually only in self-defense. They are omnivorous, and if smaller prey is not around, they content themselves with blackberries. Sea lions (I check while I am at it) are remarkably chill, sedate, unlikely to attack except in the most extreme circumstances—and we are not their preferred entrée.

So back to Padilla’s more benign explanation: First, these animals are highly intelligent and curious, eager for mental stimulation. Second, they are used to having us around: “A handful of our sea lions were rescued when young, and the grizzly bears were rescued young, too, in Montana. They will come to the big glass viewing window and jump when they see guests. The sea lions will home in on a child or maybe somebody with a colorful hat and start blowing bubbles at them or swimming in circles. Kali, our polar bear, is also very interactive. There’s a video of a guy doing burpees, and Kali is doing the same thing on the other side of the glass.”

I feel the same mixture of envy and scorn I cultivated in grade school, watching kids who were better at playing and teasing and relaxing in a group. And again in college, watching all the frat boys and sorority sisters go through their Rituals. And again when I was single and tried to go to bars. And again…

What about the lions, I ask, brightening. I love to watch those tawny bodies leap to the highest boulder in their habitat and sun themselves, looking down at the silly crowds through half-shut eyes. I suspect they might have enjoyed the closure.

“I did notice that they would spend time in lower spots, exploring and smelling, maybe even taking a nap down at ground level,” Padilla says. No one was there to bother them. It was as quiet as the city streets in April, back when you could hear yourself breathe.

The keepers, I am charmed to learn, gave the zoo’s various residents extra enrichment while the place was closed, even cool toys that require supervision, lest they be flung or eaten. “With no guests, we had time to monitor that,” Padilla explains. “And we took some of the animals, like the alpacas and our domestic cow, on longer walks around the zoo.”

(I have been taking longer walks, too, though no one has shown up to enrich me.)

“That was very stimulating for the orangutans,” Padilla continues. “They had no children to interact with, but, ‘Hey, an alpaca just came to see me!’ Orangutans are arboreal; they like to stay higher up. They will find their favorite blanket and wrap their head in it and take a nap. But when the alpacas showed up, they came down to see them.”

The sea lions were also delighted by the walkabout visits. Like the MUNY theater kids, they are bereft without an audience, desperate to hone their routines. Many of the sea lions “seem to react to more people, more sounds—they just like a crowd,” Padilla says. “Whereas the reptiles and some of our amphibians tend to be more shy. They blend in with their habitat and don’t move a lot.”

Like husbands in their favorite chair. My bubbly friend was ready to kill hers, because he was so obviously enjoying the absence of social interaction. Luckily, she could leave him in peace and hang out with their kids and dogs, a strategy similar to the elephants’ “complex family social group. That’s where they get most of their day-to-day social interactions, with each other,” Padilla explains. “They’re also close to their caretakers—they know their voices and behaviors and personalities, and they act differently around different caretakers. I can’t say that we noticed much of a change with the elephants.” They were a closed and sufficient system, like those big happy families who made cute Les Miz videos about how they were suffering in quarantine but seemed to be having a suspicious amount of fun.

Finally, we reach the animals more like me: the prairie dog pups, who dove into underground tunnels the day the zoo reopened, and the Speke’s gazelles, so shy they were put off by their keepers’ masks and refused to enter their little house.

It only took a day or two after reopening before the prairie dogs “went back to being prairie dogs,” Padilla assures me. As for the easily spooked Speke’s gazelles, they were gently coaxed back into their building by understanding keepers.

I will need understanding keepers, too. That, or I will have to climb a tree and wrap my head in a blanket. On this long vacation from normalcy, I seem to have gone feral.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.