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How one zookeeper finds comfort in caring for animals during the coronavirus pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the globe, Kelly Miklavcic said she’s found solace in her animals.

Whether it’s giraffes, zebras, ostriches, cranes, big cats, camels, wildebeests, porcupines, or warthogs — caring for these creatures helps her maintain normalcy.

Being a senior keeper at the Franklin Park Zoo, Miklavcic finds certain constants in the animals that the world doesn’t offer right now, like knowing that their male ostrich, Julius, will dance for her every morning, that their male giraffe, Chad, is the biggest flirt, or that the lions, brothers Dinari and Kamaia, love coffee grounds, cardboard boxes, and big hunks of bone.

“If there were a moment of anxiety,” Miklavcic said, “we definitely take our moments with our animals.”

For many keepers, she said the animals are where they find reassurance.

“It’s not the same as your dog or cat at home that you can hold or you grew up with,” Miklavcic said. “But you still have connection and moments with these animals and a lot of solace in working with them and being around them.”

The zoo first shuttered on a Saturday, the 32-year-old Wrentham local said. It was March 14, Miklavcic’s birthday, and the weather had been gorgeous.

Now, she said, “it’s a little eerie at times.” The usual air of wonder is gone without educators walking around, or concession staff working their regular booths.

“We do a delivery of hay and grain and things to each of our many barns, so we drive through the zoo in our big pickup truck and typically there’s a lot of people and you’re waving hi and everything,” she said. But without the people, it’s different. “You feel it,” she said. “It might not even be that obvious at first until you’re like wow, just nobody.”

Yet as our world is vastly different, she said the animals’ world has stayed very much the same.

“We’ve really committed to making sure that they don’t see the effects that humans see,” Miklavcic said.

While the bigger animals probably haven’t noticed a lack of people roaming their exhibits, a few of the smaller critters, like the otters and gibbons, are known for seeking out attention from guests.

To make sure they’re getting the same level of interaction as they would during a busy day, keepers have set up bubble machines and enhanced other enrichment activities.

And though the animals’ routines remain unchanged, Miklavcic said the keepers are still adapting to their new normal.

“We’re split into two teams. Our two teams don’t overlap so I don’t see half of my co-workers anymore,” she said.

Miklavcic’s schedule also shifted, leaving her to work nine-and-a-half-hour days, three to four times a week.

With just four people on each team, she said these changes leave room for social distancing to keep the animals and each other safe.

Though keepers haven’t had the same person-to-animal contact as before, Miklavcic said they’re making sure every animal sees the familiar faces they normally would.

The two animal care teams have also developed a special contactless form of interaction with each other, both to maintain their own morale and foster connection.

“We leave [the other team] puzzles and scavenger hunts,” she said. “A couple cycles ago, we hid just a small toy … and then we left them a series of clues, leading to that hidden thing.”

Each clue, Miklavcic added, revolves around the animals.

One keeper even made a word search with only A’s, R’s, M’s, and I’s, cracking a joke about how many of the animals’ names contain just those three letters.

“It was bananas,” Miklavcic said.

The last treasure her team left behind for the others was a video saying “We miss you.”

Beyond not seeing her colleagues anymore, Miklavcic said she’s faced a bigger challenge during this time.

“I’m an animal person over being a people person,” she said. “But the part of my job that I absolutely love is that I get to introduce people to these awesome animals that I love so much.”

The coronavirus, she said, has made it a little bit harder to share her work.

But like many other industries, the zoo has moved online where keepers host #ZooToYou livestream videos every day, introducing the animals to those stuck at home.

“The work that we do as far as maintaining these [animal] populations and getting people excited and informed about conservation and what makes these animals as special as they are is really awesome,” Miklavcic said. “And in times like this I’ve been exceptionally impressed with how much people are leaning into zoos and zoo education, especially on social media platforms.”

Having been a zookeeper for seven years now, she said it’s been exciting to see the way zoos have spurred new curiosity in people through a heightened online presence.

“It’s been really really incredible as a keeper to see how much these daily Zoo To You videos become part of their home routine, getting kids involved,” she said. And “not just families and kids, but people in their 30s or 20s.”

Miklavcic said keepers often take the behind the scenes of their work for granted while everyone else is eager to know what goes into each animal’s routine.

The things that seem mundane for her, like stuffing an enrichment feeder full of lettuce for the giraffes, are brand-new to those watching.

“Sometimes it’s not on our radar that that’s something that would be so interesting, but it’s really cool when you get to see people get excited about it, and have a better understanding of what kind of care the animals get,” she said.

Miklavcic hopes this newfound connection keepers have built with their community members continues long after the pandemic passes.

For now, no one is certain when Zoo New England will reopen.

But when it does, some things will likely stay the same — Julius the ostrich will still be dancing, the lions will still love their hunk of bone, and Kelly will still be there to take care of them.


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