BROWNSVILLE — The Gladys Porter Zoo began rolling out a members-only soft reopening on Thursday and will open to the general public starting Monday.
Reservations through an online ticketing system are required, as are proper social distancing and facial covering for everyone except visitors younger than 5 and those with special medical conditions.
The zoo has been closed since the coronavirus pandemic hit the Rio Grande Valley in March. But the animals haven’t gone anywhere, and the popular Brownsville attraction has been laying the groundwork to reopen for weeks.
Zoos across the state got the go-ahead to reopen May 29 at 25 percent of capacity.
“Hopefully we’ve covered all the bases and everything will work out great,” Marketing Director Cynthia Garza-Galvan said Thursday.
New computer software will allow the zoo to monitor the number of visitors and their arrival and departure times. Visitors, whether gpz members or the general public, can purchase tickets starting Friday on the zoo website, gpz.org, or by calling (956) 546-7187.
Visitors will be allotted a time slot for entrance in 15-minute increments so that the zoo can stay within the currently allowed capacity of 1,200 guests and they don’t queue up at the entrance waiting to get in, she said. Similar systems have been in use for years at museums in larger cities, senior veterinarian Dr. Tomas DeMaar said.
Guests will need to print out their tickets at home or have the pdf image available at the entrance on their smart phone or mobile device.
Safe-distancing markers have been placed at strategic points around the zoo where people normally congregate, traffic directional lines and signage giving tips to stay healthy and to avoid touching windows in common areas such as the herpetorium and aquarium, De Maar said.
“It’s going to be like a museum, with signs warning you not to touch windows or other common surfaces,” he said. “We have an open vulnerability and have to guard against the risk of disease transmission from humans to animals. There was a tiger in New York (that got the coronavirus) and a few dogs and cats have gotten sick. … We’ll have extra signage around the great apes to try to prevent people from giving them food or drink, to not throw food. We’ll be doubling up on prevention, he said.
Markings designate a one-way traffic flow around the zoo starting at Gorilla Island and bearing left
The herpetorium, Russell Aquatic Ecology Center and Austrailian exhibit will be open at 25% of capacity, but the education building and playground structure will be temporarily closed. This will also be the case for the children’s petting zoo and the zoo’s four feeding stations, for giraffes, flamingoes, stingrays and Galapagos tortoises.
“We don’t want direct contact between the public and animals, the risk is too great,” DeMaar said
“The animals have been fine,” he added. “The staff continues to come and feed them. Do they miss the public, the interaction? They’re probably wondering where the brightly colored clothing and happy faces have gone. Nobody looks sad about it and we haven’t had any health issues, fortunately.”
DeMaar said for health reasons the zoo early on split the animal departments into two completely separate staffs using masks, practicing safe social distancing and washing their hands often.
“Taking care of animals it doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas or there is a calamity. Somebody has to take care of them.” He said the computer software was the main stumbling block to reopening and really was “a question of how do we do it logistically.”
Earlier, zoo personnel mounted a successful Go Fund Me campaign to pay for animal food and other ongoing expenses when they realized the main source of funding, admission fees, would disappear when it closed.