Aubrey Theiss working with northern fur seal Flaherty
Aubrey Theiss working with northern fur seal Flaherty Seattle Aquarium

Remember the start of quarantine, when you were so sure you’d use the time at home to learn a new skill? Maybe you’d get into knitting, or bake a lot of bread, or learn Portuguese. Don’t feel bad if it didn’t turn out that way; not everyone could have had as productive a pandemic-year as Aniak, who spent the last year learning a whole range of new skills — for example, hauling herself up onto an x-ray plate in exchange for fish.

The quarantimes haven’t just been weird for humans. Our friends at local zoos, aquariums, and wildlife centers have had an unusual year as well. But their caretakers have seen to it that the various critters in their care are making the most of this very strange time.

“When lockdown started, animals definitely noticed,” says Rachel Salant, Curator of Behavioral Husbandry & Ambassador Animals at Woodland Park Zoo. Reactions spanned a gamut, she says. “It’s very individual — it has nothing to do with species, just like humans some might be more prone to enjoy the solitude.”

In fact, the ways in which animals have coped with a year in quarantine are, in some cases, strangely similar to the ways that humans responded. It’s almost like we’re animals, too.

Vet care for a harbor seal during COVID-19 closure
Vet care for a harbor seal during COVID-19 closure Seattle Aquarium

As is the case for many of us, many animals kept going to work during the pandemic despite periods of closure or reduced attendance. That includes so-called “ambassador animals” — those who are comfortable around humans, often reptiles, armadillos, opossums, skunks, and birds of prey. In normal times, those animals visit schools and put in appearances at special events ... if they want to.

“We choose animals that thrive doing that work,” Salant says. “All of our animals have a choice whether they participate in that program.”

Instead of visiting with humans during quarantine (some non-human species are susceptible to coronaviruses too), many of Seattle’s ambassador animals opened diplomatic relations with a new crowd: other animals.

The river otters, for example, were beside themselves to meet Eduardo, the Southern three-banded armadillo, and the penguins were intrigued by Skyáana the porcupine.

These introductions are more than just cute photo ops — though they are that. They’re also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for research that would be nearly impossible with guests present.

“No zoo has ever had the opportunity to study what the animals do in the complete absence of guests,” says Salant. Among the observations: “Our animals are super resilient,” she says. “No matter what happened to us, and what happened to our staffing levels, no matter what happened with pandemic, they did great. It made me think that, wow, the chaos is truly with us. It’s helped me get through the pandemic, watching them and their calm and the resiliency.”

At the Seattle Aquarium, animal caretakers took the opportunity to step up training programs — largely so that the animals could participate in their own healthcare. You can’t always ask a sea otter to wait patiently while you check their joints for arthritis, so Animal Care Specialist Aubrey Theiss taught them how to put themselves onto the aquarium’s x-ray machine.

Can I help you?
"Can I help you?" Seattle Aquarium

“It’s based on positive reinforcement, which is food,” Theiss says, which, same. After training her with some fish, Aniak will now follow a finger point or a buoy on the end of a pole up onto the x-ray plate, and wait patiently while a box is slipped on top to get a good look at her bone health.

Food also provided some unexpected connections during quarantine. When guests are present, animal caretakers don’t eat lunch in public areas. But with the aquarium empty, they began to have lunch in the underwater dome. To their delight, Flaherty the fur seal came down to visit, and they would sometimes spend lunchtime interacting through the glass, chasing each other from one end to the other.

Caretakers found themselves scrambling to develop more games and activities for the animals so they wouldn’t grow bored. “Every day each animal will receive one to three different types of enrichment,” Theiss said (echoing the advice that I received from my therapist for not growing depressed while in quarantine).

For example, the aquarium hung large sheets up butcher paper around the underwater dome, with cutouts at various spots, then ran to different holes in a sort of hide-and-seek game with Flaherty. They hung up mirrors around the exhibit, so instead of seeing humans they’d see themselves. During the holidays, they hung up twinkling lights, and they even had the occasional disco ball day. The octopus, meanwhile, was given a Potato Head toy to play with, filled with food.

A successful pandemic pod.
A successful pandemic pod. Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

But of all the activities in which the animals have engaged over the last year, one of the most relatable is nesting. Woodland Park Zoo was careful to provide extra material to their animals — particularly birds — so they could create comfortable environments for themselves, sometimes in different areas of the house than they normally might rest. (When I learned about this, I was sitting in the beat-up rocking chair that I recently obtained so that I have more options for where I can conduct interviews at home.)

Zuna was born to Nadiri and Kwame last month.
Zuna was born to Nadiri and Kwame last month. Woodland Park Zoo

The caretakers’ attention seems to have paid off, with Salant reporting that not only are the animals coping quite happily in the absence of guests, but their routines have been uninterrupted in one of the most important areas of all.

“We had quite a baby boom,” she says. “That’s a behavioral indicator to us that the animals are truly thriving.”