An Arkansas staple and beloved attraction, the Little Rock Zoo, has been making huge strides in its return to normalcy amidst the pandemic. After shutting down from March to June 2020, the Zoo has made the necessary adjustments to accommodate for COVID-19 safety precautions as well as taken the time to enhance several features within the grounds.
To maintain the health and safety of attendees, staff and, most importantly, the animals, enhanced cleaning protocols have been put in place. Common gathering areas, bathrooms and the playground receive constant sanitation while masks are required for those above the age of 10. Reservations to visit must be made on the Little Rock Zoo website in order to follow limited capacity guidelines. Behind the scenes, staff follows mandated sanitation measures and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines during the upkeep of habitats and feedings. The Zoo plans to maintain these same measures throughout 2021 to allow visitors to feel safe and well-cared for during their trips to the Zoo.
“We’ve been super fortunate since we reopened. The Zoo has had great attendance, and I think that’s because families have come to rely on the Zoo as a safe place for a family outing,” says Susan Altrui, director of the Little Rock Zoo. “We are an outdoor venue, and we’ve taken lots of precautions to keep families safe, to keep our staff safe and to keep our animals safe.”
Taking advantage of a little bit of downtime, some exciting renovations have been made, while some others are still works in progress for the public to enjoy. Families with strollers and individuals in wheelchairs can now enjoy smooth pathways as they journey through the many exhibits the Zoo has to offer. “Our stroller moms and dads are really happy about that,” laughs Altrui. “If you’ve ever pushed a stroller or wheelchair through our Zoo, then you know that redoing the pathways is extremely important.” The pathways not only provide smooth terrain but also a pristine aesthetic with the addition of horticulture lining the paths and revamping the general look.
Joining in on the fun are a couple of new habitats debuting in April. Colobus monkeys are joining the Little Rock Zoo family with a new exhibit featuring a climbing structure that allows them to crawl up and over guests on the path below. These active monkeys enjoy hopping around and showing off their long, fluffy tails to the crowd. With plenty of new climbing structures, these new monkeys will get ample opportunity to show off their beauty and allow guests to admire them. Not quite so new to the Zoo like the colobus monkeys but also receiving a home renovation are the serval cats. These playful felines with signature big ears will be more visible to guests in their new habitat. Renovations are being made to allow the cats to be easier to spot while also giving the cats more room to play and roam around. “This enhanced habitat will be better for the animals and for our guests as well, so it’s a win-win for everybody,” Altrui says.
Through a partnership with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas, the Zoo will introduce a lesser-known Arkansas indigenous reptile: the eastern collared lizard. This species of lizard — with looks most would associate with tropical regions — will find a new home at the Little Rock Zoo in the summer of 2021. “The intent is that we will be breeding these lizards to be re-released back into the wild,” Altrui says. “But along with that, we’re going to have our own habitat exhibit where the public will be able to see this beautiful lizard up close, and they’ll be able to learn more about the re-release program.” This new exhibit will be featured in front of the Conservation Learning Center. “[It’s] a species that not many Arkansans know about, but [it’s] right here in our backyard. Found mostly in the Ozark mountains, [it’s] something Arkansans can definitely be proud of. We’re very excited to work with Arkansas Game and Fish in helping to save these beautiful lizards.”
While waiting for the chance to learn more about the Little Rock Zoo and AGFC program, the Zoo offers other educational opportunities for both kids and adults. Starting last summer, Zoofari virtual camps were available for children to tune in at home and feel like they were at the Zoo. These camps will continue in March during spring break for families that either cannot make it to the Zoo or still don’t want to take the chance to get out in public right now. Virtual classrooms that teach about animals and habitats are also available for teachers to use in their classrooms and for anyone who is interested to learn more about the many beautiful animals that call the Little Rock Zoo home. Registration for the virtual access is available on the Little Rock Zoo website. “If you go to [our website], there are lots of opportunities for enhanced virtual learning for all kinds of topics, including our conservation mission,” Altrui says.
The stars of the show, both virtual and in the “wild,” have thankfully been doing well amidst the pandemic. With staff following proper protocols while caring for the animals, all have stayed healthy — both staff and creature. However, some animals seemed to miss their two-legged friends.
“When we were closed, it was actually kind of interesting. We noticed that it seemed as though some of our animals missed seeing the public. Now that we’re open, [you] can tell that things are good again,” Altrui says.
Visiting the animals and showing support for the Little Rock Zoo is important in numerous ways. The animals get to see their favorite, odd-looking visitors, and the Zoo is able to maintain revenue to care for its inhabitants.
“Support is always important. It comes in the form of gated admimissions, donations, support from special events, etc. The act of buying a membership is hugely important,” Altrui says. “I always tell people that just [by] coming to the Zoo and spending money at the Zoo, [you’re] helping us to care for our animals and to spread our conservation mission.”
During the Zoo’s shutdown, a large amount of revenue was lost, and they are still recovering. Participating in the virtual events or going to the Zoo are small ways to show not only the Zoo, but the animals as well, how much the community cares.
You can learn more about what’s happening at the Zoo and what’s upcoming at littlerockZoo.com.