tiger

Sandy Hook resident Bethany Thatcher, an animal care specialist at Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo, is seen with Reka, a 250-pound Amur tiger. Thatcher was checking out Reka’s reaction to her mask -- something she wouldn’t normally wear. The mask is part of her gear now, one of many changes because of coronavirus concerns. “I don’t know if she knew who I was right away, but she was staring at my face more than she normally would,” Thatcher said, of the 2-year-old tiger.

One recent afternoon, Gregg Dancho found himself inside the rainforest building at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, where he and his staff are responsible for 350 animals — many among the planet’s most endangered species.

Dancho, the zoo’s director, was hosting a Facetime Live program on the axolotl, a salamander from Mexico that’s “almost extinct in the wild.” Those tuned in were clearly interested to learn about this 10-inch amphibian that’s sort of a superhero when it comes to unique abilities.

Facing the camera/phone and holding a tank to display the curious creature, Dancho explained how axolotls have external gills and prefer living in water, as they do at the zoo, but if conditions dry up they can absorb their gills and become land creatures.

One mom commented, “They remind my kids of the Night Fury from ‘How to Train Your Dragon.’” Another viewer asked, if they lose a limb, such as their tail, can they grow it back like a hellbender? 

Although axolotls can regenerate limbs, the new ones don’t come back looking as good as before, Dancho said. When the live session ended, people expressed their appreciation for the “amazing” lesson.

Facebook Live is just one way the zoo is connecting with the public while its gates are shut because of coronavirus concerns. Dancho said its virtual programs are going well, but “the thing that’s most scary is being closed at this time of year,” because as a nonprofit, the zoo needs financial support.

“Spring is when we want to see guests come out. We do a lot of weddings and birthday parties, too, and all of that is not happening now. It’s distressing; it’s getting harder and harder,” he said. “We have some donations coming in; we’re trying to get some state and federal funding to help us. It’s very expensive.” For example, he said, red pandas are an endangered species and important members of the zoo’s family. They eat bamboo, and while there’s some on the grounds, the kind they like best must be purchased from down South.

Caring for the animals involves everything from feedings and cleaning habitats to healthcare, such as keeping up with vaccine schedules and testing for illness. Since a Bronx Zoo tiger recently tested positive for coronavirus— the first animal in the country — precautions are being taken to prevent the spread to Beardsley Zoo’s animals.

Zookeepers also provide enrichment so the animals don’t get bored. Sometimes it’s through a selection of toys. Since the closure occurred, there’s even music, played through a loudspeaker. Animal care specialist Bethany Thatcher says zookeepers like herself (there are 10), perform training and enrichment all the time. “We provide mental stimulation for them, all the things your pet at home would need.”

Once or twice a week they play dance music or classic ’70s rock. “That has good vibes — nothing too depressing or end-of-the world-ish,” she said. “We like to keep things upbeat.”

Of course there’s nothing very upbeat about having to wear masks at work and spacing out kitchen visits so no one is preparing food for the animals at the same time. Thatcher said a co-worker was nice enough to make masks for them; they put coffee filters inside for extra protection. And they change their gloves each time they enter one of the five buildings.