Toronto Zoo pivots to ‘drive-thru experience’ as safe alternative in COVID era

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TORONTO — The Toronto Zoo will be a “drive-thru experience” when it gets the green light to open its gates to visitors, a spokeswoman said Thursday, while other zoos eye numerous options as they map out their post-pandemic plans.

The zoo’s 3.4-kilometre route goes above and beyond the Ontario government’s framework to reopen the province as the spread of COVID-19 slows, Amanda Chambers said in an emailed statement.

“The pre-booked driving route would allow guests to see the zoo’s animals from the comfort and safety of their own vehicle,” Chambers said.

She did not say whether the format would be temporary.

Pivoting to drive-thru is one of numerous options zoos and aquariums are contemplating as they figure out how to safely reopen now that the spread of COVID-19 is slowing across much of Canada.

“While it varies from facility to facility, there are some commonalities amongst them,” said Jim Facette, executive director of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums.

He said the organization’s members are also looking at providing masks to visitors, having them walk along a predetermined route or having people pre-book timed visits online, limiting the number of guests and reducing the number of cash outlets.

“Our accredited zoos and aquariums understand the fact that it’s public safety first,” Facette said. “So they know that certain facilities that they have where there tend to be larger gatherings of people — be it restaurants or theatres — they’re just not going to be opened.”

Roughly two-thirds of accredited zoos and aquariums have made use of government assistance, Facette said, and this week’s federal announcement on help for the tourism sector is expected to bolster the industry.

But zoos have also had to make some compromises, including asking for donations from the public to make sure they can feed their animals while continuing conservation work.

In April, the Toronto Zoo, Calgary Zoo and Vancouver Aquarium all said they were facing new financial strains because they typically rely on admissions and parking fees to pay for such necessities as food and environment upkeep.

The Calgary Zoo announced this week it will be returning two giant pandas on loan from China because the COVID-19 pandemic has made it hard to get enough bamboo to feed them.

The zoo’s president, Clement Lanthier, said the facility spent months trying to overcome transportation barriers in acquiring fresh bamboo and eventually decided it’s best for the animals to be in China, where their main food source is abundant.

“It’s about the animals. At the end of the day, we cannot pretend that we care for animals if we don’t take those tough decisions,” he said on Tuesday.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press