Peace and quiet in Animal Kingdom during shutdown

  • Animals
  • Saturday, 23 May 2020

Gino, the patriarch of the western lowland gorilla troop, might be enjoying the solitude while Animal Kingdom is closed. — TNS

It can be fun to daydream about animals taking over Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park while it’s closed. Maybe lions would venture off their rock at the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction for a new sunny spot or the bats would go crazy or the elephants would take a dip near the “Rivers of Light” amphitheatre. Or maybe they’d make a break for it over to Epcot. You know, just a bunch of mammals, blowing off steam in the coronavirus era.

Of course, that’s pure fantasy land. Instead, Mark Penning, Disney Parks’ vice president for animals, science and environment, filled me in on the current reality, which has some Disney employees still on duty to take care of all the animals on Walt Disney World property, which includes not only the Animal Kingdom crew but also creatures at Epcot (The Living Seas) and at Fort Wilderness.

“I feel very confident right now that our animals are all in a great place, ” says Penning, who has been with the company since 2012.

We chatted about baby zebras, the animals’ air-conditioned bedrooms, an unusual Earth Day 2020, the physical beauty of a theme park that’s (temporarily) closed and his educated guess about which DAK residents might be missing park guests.

Here’s what Penning, in his own words, had to say about...

Disrupted routines

“Animals are kind of like people in the sense that they like routine; they like know what’s coming. And you know, the surprises are not something that they really want to have too often. So, the park is definitely different right now.... We study their behaviour. It’s not just a matter of throwing food out and the animals are going to be fine. We study them really carefully. We’ve got amazing scientists that understand what the animals are trying to tell us and how they’re behaving.

“We’re trying to keep the same routines, you know, same times that we feed. We provide enrichment for them to keep them thinking and doing different things. They’re doing well at the moment, but we’re really looking forward to opening the park up and sharing.”

“There are some animals, like in our Affection Section, that love contact with people, so they’re standing around saying, ‘Why am I not getting petted today?’ So people are going through and talking and scratching and just making contact because that’s what they love.”

Puzzled gorillas

“I think it’s fair to say the four bachelor gorillas quite enjoy a little more peace and quiet.... Whereas the family really enjoy, I think, having people around because they find it entertaining.

“We’ve got this young-ish gorilla, Lilly. Lilly’s just the funniest character. She will take a banana leaf or something like that or a piece of enrichment, wrap it around herself and then roll down the hill towards the window where the guests are watching.

“And the guests find it hysterically funny, and she loves the fact that what she did made everybody react, so she’ll go and do it again. I think she’s probably looking up and saying, ‘This is a little boring. Where’s my audience?’”

Sleeping habits

“To a large extent, our animals have got an air-conditioned bedroom that they’re able to retire to when they when they choose.

“A lot of what we do is trying to give our animals choices and make them feel that they’re in control of their environment, because that just makes them more comfortable, more settled. They thrive that way.

“At Animal Kingdom at nighttime, when the last safari has gone through, most of those animals head to the barns because they really want to spend the night in their bedrooms.

“Whereas at Animal Kingdom Lodge, animals prefer to stay out at nighttime and then during the day, they’ll actually come in.... We want the animals to come in the backstage areas for a short time every day. And the reason for that is, we want to be able to be up close and see that each one is healthy.

Animals and Covid-19

“I think our strategy can be summarised very simply as we’ve got great staff, we have incredibly talented veterinarians that are really smart and animal-care staff that follow CDC guidelines – face masks and that kind of thing – to protect animals and to protect our staff too.

We also are in regular contact with the experts. You know, there are some folks out there who specialise in this kind of thing, whether they are virologists, epidemiologists or pathologists. We’re in contact because we want to evolve our thinking as the latest science comes out, so it’s a learning time for all of us, but we’re following the guidelines to the letter.... I’m in contact with the folks from the Bronx Zoo (where tigers tested positive for coronavirus)... and at the moment we’re feeling very comfortable with our animals.”

Asha and J.B., the baby zebras

“The two them, of course, as youngsters are just frolicking all over the place, bouncing around like pogo sticks on the savanna and doing great. But, of course, this is their normal.

Asha, a zebra born at Animal Kingdom in March, has been introduced to the savanna at the theme park in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.— Walt Disney Co./TNSAsha, a zebra born at Animal Kingdom in March, has been introduced to the savanna at the theme park in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.— Walt Disney Co./TNS

The savannas are empty; there are not a lot of trucks coming through, and so we’re going to have to acclimate them again.... We do send trucks through every day as people are checking on them, putting up feed and whatever, but we’ll certainly be careful about acclimating them again as we open up.”

In the social-media spotlight

“I’ve got to give credit to our public-affairs folks. We’ve got wonderful people, amazing animals and great stories to tell – meaningful stories and stories of hope. People need stories of hope right now; it’s a difficult time for everyone.”

A female prehensile-tailed porcupine was born on Feb 25 at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, Florida. — Walt Disney Co./TNSA female prehensile-tailed porcupine was born on Feb 25 at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, Florida. — Walt Disney Co./TNS

Flowers in full bloom

“It looks magnificent. It’s just beautiful at the moment because there is no horticulture team trimming away at the vegetation.

It is really full and lush and beautiful at the moment.

The park is filled out, there are blossoms everywhere, it’s full colours and gorgeous. It’s just such a beautiful place for us to be right now.” – Tribune News Service/The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)/Dewayne Bevil

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