When the world came to a sudden stop in 2020, zoos across the nation stuck their necks out in a bid to survive.
Zookeepers put in long hours to ensure the animals were fed, enclosures were clean, and all the necessary tasks were done for the zoo’s survival.
Only one thing was different – they didn’t have any visitors during the height of the pandemic, losing their main source of income.
Hunter Valley Zoo, near Cessnock, was forced to close for 13 weeks and, when it reopened, activities still could not return to normal.
“Like everyone, the pandemic had a huge impact on us,” director Jason Pearson said.
“During the time of closure, zoo life was pretty much the same, cleaning and feeding the animals, the only big difference being no visitors.
“The big changes came when we re-opened [in terms of] not being able to offer shows or talks and having to collect people’s details via QR codes, it was such a different world to open in.”
Zookeeper Riley Lowe added that it was a challenging time.
“A bit of organised chaos is the best way to describe it,” he said.
“When we closed, we did the best we could with what we had and we were lucky enough that we got support with JobKeeper and government grants to keep us afloat because we couldn’t just shut down and walk away, we still had to be here to look after the animals.”
Riley said that, since the zoo reopened, it has been bustling with visitors.
“Everyone has come out and supported us,” he said.
“I think everyone [was] sick of being stuck at home, so they wanted to come out to the zoo where it is a nice, open environment.”
Riley believes part of their popularity is thanks to new arrivals Sophie and Shingo.
The giraffes were welcomed in November but have been years in the making for the zoo.
The team is also planning to welcome a third giraffe to create a breeding herd for the future.
“Hopefully, they’ll be a bit of a crowd drawer in the school holidays,” Riley said.
“But it is just amazing to be part of a breeding program for such an iconic and well-known African species, everyone knows and loves giraffes, so to have them here in the Hunter Valley is pretty awesome.”
Jason added that he was incredibly thankful to the community for its support during the year.
“The community support and support from outside visitors was amazing, [they have] loved the open air and feel-good safe environment we have on offer,” he said.
“The most challenging part was when we had to close and not knowing how long it would be for.”
Moving forward, both Jason and Riley hope the zoo has a bigger and better 2021.
“After [a year] of craziness, I have no expectations for 2021,” Jason said.
“I will just take each day as it comes with the knowledge that this great community will get through whatever gets thrown our way.”
Visit the zoo’s website for more information.