While most public areas of the world are closed to visitors, zoo and aquarium owners are not able to just shut up shop during a pandemic.

As well as feeding and caring for their charges, Texas State Aquarium have come up with a 'training and enrichment' programme for their animals - and it's resulted in possibly the oddest meeting of mammals ever.

For the first time Chico the sloth was introduced to resident dolphins, Liko and Schooner, as the animal's enrichment regime.

Liko joined Chico in hanging upside down. Photo / Supplied,Texas State Aquarium
Liko joined Chico in hanging upside down. Photo / Supplied,Texas State Aquarium

While it might seem like a very delayed April 1st story, it's a huge undertaking. Moving animals, exercising and keeping them used to human interaction is an important part of the programme that cares for 13,000 animals comprising and over 460 species, including a pair of resident Linnaeus' two-toed sloths Xena and Chico.

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It's led to some of the strangest encounters of animals that never would have happened in the wild.

Understandably the dolphins were eager to get a look at Chico, though he was a little more laid back about the experience.


"In true sloth fashion, Chico was pretty sleepy when we brought him to our underwater view to meet the dolphins, but he did open his eyes a few times to check them out," Seamus McAfee the Aquarium's head of marketing and comms told Insider magazine.

It's provided plenty of opportunities for photos, which have been shared with the would-be visitors to the aquarium online.

Just hanging: Zookeepers around the world have been running animal-enrichment programmes. Photo / Supplied,Texas State Aquarium
Just hanging: Zookeepers around the world have been running animal-enrichment programmes. Photo / Supplied,Texas State Aquarium

"Our four dolphins — Shadow, Kai, Liko, and Schooner — often get opportunities to meet other Aquarium residents as part of their enrichment, and in the past they've gotten to meet baby gators, an African serval, a red-tailed boa, and others," said McAfee.

While some fish and mollusks require less TLC during lockdown many animals, including dolphins require stimulation from encounters and training.

The birds of prey in particular need opportunity to stretch their wings and rehearse falconry shows, that would normally be performed in front of the public. Now it's more about giving the birds a chance to simulate hunting for their food and keep "active in body and mind."

Even while we're closed, training and enrichment continue on as usual to keep our animals active in body and mind....

Posted by Texas State Aquarium on Thursday, 2 April 2020

You might think life in lockdown would be a familiar situation for captive animals, but zookeepers around the world are reporting the same thing: the animals are missing the company of humans.

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In Wellington Zoo the creatures have gotten so used to having an audience, they have begun looking for people.

"Some of our animals are looking for people, like the tigers," spokesperson Ash Howell told the Herald.

Glyn Avery, Wellington Zoo herbivore and birds team leader has continued essential work to care for his animal charges. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Glyn Avery, Wellington Zoo herbivore and birds team leader has continued essential work to care for his animal charges. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Zookeepers are having to carry out a range of "behavioural enrichment activities" to keep the animals stimulated during the lockdown.

"We've noticed they are more interested in our keepers when they are working with them in the mornings, which is probably indicative of them not seeing visitors or other staff as much.

"Our chimpanzees and otters also seem to have noticed a lack of visitors."

However for the animal carers and zookeepers, the animal contact has been welcome too.

"We have seven teams operating independently on site; with members of each team also maintaining physical distancing from each other. We have split our teams into two groups, each working three days at the zoo followed by three days at home."

- With additional reporting by Melissa Nightingale
NeedToKnow3

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website