Coronavirus Chronicles: Zoom Animals

Madison RutherfordSeptember 3, 2020
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Many Valley residents miss feeding the giraffes, getting up close and personal with the goats and other exciting animal encounters at the Phoenix Zoo.

Guests aren’t the only ones that miss that connection. The animals noticed the absence of people in the park, so the zoo’s staff stepped in to give the animals extra attention.

The zoo temporarily shut its doors to the public in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“That is our busiest time of year,” says Linda Hardwick, the zoo’s director of communications. “More than 80 percent of our earned revenue is from people coming to the zoo, people holding events here, concessions, membership and retail.”

In May, it launched Cruise the Zoo, a drive-through experience where people could see some of the zoo animals while staying in their cars. Though the event sold out nearly every weekend, it still wasn’t enough to make up for the nearly $6 million of revenue that the zoo had lost.

In March, April and May, the zoo did daily Facebook Live sessions so the public could still see the animals. It also increased its already strong social media presence and moved its Roars and Pours happy hour event, which usually takes place in the park, online.

The zoo also put its adorable two-toed sloth, Fernando, on Cameo, a website where people can pay for personalized video messages from celebrities. So far, he has raised nearly $15,000 for the nonprofit zoo. Fernando’s videos were so popular, in fact, that the zoo added giraffes, flamingos and a stingray to Cameo.

The zoo then started thinking of other creative ideas that would offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the day-to-day lives of animals while still benefitting the park. One platform kept popping up: Zoom.

“It felt like the perfect opportunity because everybody is doing online meetings,” Hardwick says.

Now, people can invite a zoo animal into their next Zoom meeting. They can choose from several species at different price points, which include “FaceTime with Fernando” for $250 or “Rendezvous with a Rhino” for $200. Other options include an aardvark, an owl or a “mystery guest,” which could be a flamingo, porcupine, chameleon or tortoise for $150. Each Zoom call lasts 15 minutes and includes information provided by the species’ keeper with the animal present – at least as much as they can be.

“I always have a disclaimer, especially with Fernando,” Hardwick says. “He may choose to sleep during the online meeting. We really can’t do anything about it, but people love Fernando if he’s awake or asleep.”

They chose to highlight Fernando because of his international internet fame – media outlets from TMZ to AP wrote articles about him. Hardwick says they also wanted to do something “big and exciting,” so they decided to feature the rhinos, but they also wanted to feature a few smaller animals.

To test out the concept, the zoo had Fernando crash an Arizona Office of Tourism meeting.

“As soon as they saw Fernando, everyone started laughing hysterically,” Hardwick says. “It’s just really fun to see people’s reactions.”

Each experience can be tailored to what people want, she adds, whether that’s at the start of a call or halfway through.

The zoo plans to continue this program even after the pandemic subsides and the park opens to foot traffic again.

“It really forced us to think outside the box and now I think we’ve all realized that no request is too far-fetched or out there because we’ve seen what we can make happen in a short amount of time,” Hardwick says. “It’s been a good eye-opener and a good test.”

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