BIG BEAR, Calif. - The next time you head to a zoo to see your favorite animal, your visit will look a lot different as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Big Bear Alpine Zoo welcomed back visitors on June 12, but getting ready for reopening wasn’t easy.

The zoo typically welcomes over 100,000 visitors a year, but after it shuttered in mid-March due to the pandemic, lead zookeeper Christy McGiveron observed she wasn’t the only one who noticed the lack of foot traffic.

What You Need To Know

  • Big Bear Alpine Zoo welcomed back visitors earlier this month

  • Zoo, which typically welcomes over 100K visitors annually, had been closed since March

  • Zoo has installed plexiglass, hand sanitizer, and canceled animal shows

  • The Zoo plans to relocate to larger location later this year

“She misses the people,” said McGiveron. “She is one of the ones that enjoy watching people come by.”

McGiveron is referring to a badger named 'Lotus,' one of approximately 150 animals that call the zoo home. 

But McGiveron points out other animals relish the peace and quiet. “Like the snow leopards will be out a little more because there’s not as many crowds,” she said. “They’re a little bit more shy and reserved.”

McGiveron is in her 28th year with the zoo, which takes in sick and injured animals. For example, people will bring in injured birds or pet owners will surrender wild animals, including reptiles, they can no longer care for. 

“And our main goal is when they come in, we assess the situation and we prefer to get them healthy and get them back out there,” said McGiveron. “But if they’re not going to be able to survive and take care of themselves on their own, then we give them a permanent home."

Once the pandemic hit, the zoo stopped allowing people to drop off animals to minimize exposure to coronavirus and instead, focused on wildlife already living at the zoo.

“As far as care for the animals, they’re still getting top-quality care,” said McGiveron. “They get fed. They get cleaned. They get their enrichment items each day, to help keep them healthy and happy.”

Enrichment items include lettuce, which McGiveron gives to wolves.

“That would stimulate them if they were to catch a prey and to, you know, be ripping parts of it off to get into it to see what's in there or just something fun for them to play with,” she said. “I don't think they are really going for the taste of it as far as like eating it.”

As California continues along the path to reopening, McGiveron says the zoo is starting to rehabilitate animals again but it’s best to call ahead.

“If it’s an animal that’s injured, then we’ll have you come and we have a protocol, where you’ll come to our back gate, you’ll fill out a clipboard there, you’ll call us, let us know you’re there,” she said. “We’ll come out with our personal protection stuff on.”

The zoo prepared for reopening by installing hand sanitizers throughout the facility and plexiglass to protect cashiers at the entrance.

“All staff and patrons will be required to wear face masks while on the grounds and that's not only to protect the staff and the people, but for the animals because some of the zoos have had cases of the big cats contracting COVID,” she said.

One more big change at the zoo - no more animal shows, which McGiveron says were a big hit.

“Unfortunately, we won't be doing any shows and presentations once we open back up because that encourages people to congregate in large groups together so that they can hear you,” she said.

For now, videos of animal presentation will be posted on the zoo’s Facebook page. Despite all the changes, McGiveron is happy to welcome visitors and take in animals again.

“It's a good feeling knowing that we can help rescue and get a lot of animals back out and give them a second chance cause everybody needs a second chance,” she said.

Although the zoo recently reopened, it won’t stay in its current location for long. By the end of the year, the zoo will relocate down the street to a new 5.6 acre facility, more than double its current size.