The giraffes, zebras, bighorn sheep, and other critters at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens have always maintained social distance from humans. Now, the people are keeping away from each other, too.
That’s among the many changes that have come to the 50-year-old Palm Desert institution following a three-month closure because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. The Living Desert implemented several safety measures when it reopened June 15, including limiting the number of visitors, requiring face coverings, suspending shows and gatherings, and closing confined spaces.
“We’ve been cooped up for so long, so it’s nice to get out and see the giraffes and all the animals,” said Melia Gonzalez, who visited the day of reopening with her 4-year-old daughter. “It feels very safe. I think they did everything they could do to make it safe for everyone.”
Besides paw-themed markings on the pavement to encourage visitors to gawk at animals at least six feet away from other guests, The Living Desert also added arrows and partitions to spread out and separate foot traffic.
However, the most dramatic change welcoming back visitors was an entirely new pavilion and array of animals: The Australian Adventures habitat introduces wallabies, kookaburras, tawny frogmouths, short-beaked echidnas, emu, pythons, and other exotic animals from Down Under to The Living Desert’s animal population. The pavilion expands the desert-themed diversity at the zoo, which is mostly divided into North America and Africa sections.
Australian Adventures was originally set to open to the public March 21, but The Living Desert zoo closed March 17 in accordance with public health orders. The pavilion is covered with protective netting — for the birds, not the humans — and visitors must enter and exit through a series of automated doors because Bennett’s wallabies roam freely within the enclosure. Beyond a glass partition, yellow-footed wallabies scale rock formations and splash across a cascading waterfall.
A wallaby sits in the shade provided by the tree, while patrons can still gain a close-up view of the giraffes.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Meredith Sutton, who was visiting the area with her husband from Los Angeles. “They can just jump right by you. It’s magnificent.”
The reopening is also the first opportunity for visitors to meet the three Chacoan peccary piglets who were born in May and see how the 11 African wild dog puppies have matured since they were born in January.
“We spent almost three months without general public visitation,” says Living Desert president and CEO Allen Monroe. “But, of course, unlike many other businesses that can just turn lights off and shut the doors and walk away, we had a commitment to all of the animals that are here in the park.”
The Living Desert’s health precautions include:
• All guests over age 3 must wear face coverings.
• The pavement is marked with arrows to encourage visitors to follow a path to avoid contact with others, and viewing areas are marked with standing spots at least six feet apart.
• Admission is limited to 200 guests per hour and a maximum 1,000 per day, and contact-less purchases are encouraged online or at kiosks.
• The gift shop is temporarily closed, but merchandise has been moved outside for purchase and attendants will retrieve merchandise from inside at visitors’ request.
• The tram service has been halted, but the zoo’s VIP safari experience remains available for an additional fee.
• Food service locations are only open for take-away service and can be consumed at outside tables, which have been moved further apart.
Pedestrian traffic flow is directed by arrows on the pavement and separate lanes.
• Amphitheater programs, aviaries, the reptile pavilion, carousel, and other experiences that draw crowds or are located in confined spaces have been temporarily suspended.
For more information on The Living Desert’s safety measures, visit livingdesert.org.