At the Houston Zoo on a Friday morning in August, a sleepy monkey had a bad case of the hiccups. A gorilla sunbathed. Sea lions flipped and arched in sloppy semicircles.
My heart leapt with them. Their guttural barks boomed with joie de vivre while they performed aquatic gymnastics, and I instinctively leaned over their tank for a better view.
Suddenly, I jolted back to reality—where I was, when it was. And after relishing a few more of their carefree whirls, I walked away.
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I had come to the zoo for fresh air and a dose of escapism. Unfortunately, the sea lions weren’t my only companions, and a few adults wearing masks as chin straps scared me more than big cats ever will. The Fauci on my shoulder never failed to remind me that I was living in a new, virus-riddled world and I had just walked straight into a petri dish.
In addition to some zoos, countless attractions across Texas would usually represent perfect summer or fall outings. But since the coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it, excursions that were once no-brainers pose new logistical questions that are genuinely difficult to assess. Zoos and theme parks are places we associate with letting loose and having fun, even with returning to the simpler days of childhood—but those happy-go-lucky moments feel weighed down by a more sinister undertone right now.
Amusement parks, water parks, zoos, and aquariums have all welcomed back visitors, with modifications. At Six Flags Fiesta Texas, in San Antonio, safety procedures require temperature checks, and stations around the park dole out hand sanitizer. Nearby, SeaWorld’s workers wear personal protective equipment around some of the animals, including felines and primates, “out of an abundance of caution” (at the Bronx Zoo, lions and tigers tested positive for the virus). Face coverings are mandatory to set foot in Schlitterbahn, though they’re not required in line for water attractions or in pools, rendering their use essentially moot in much of the park. Even the Texas Renaissance Festival still plans to travel back in time this fall, with face mask contests to mark the occasion.
But, as the state nears the grim benchmark of 600,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and surpasses 11,000 deaths, is now really the time to venture out? That depends, experts say.
“Unless we are staying in our homes by ourselves and never see another living soul, there is some risk involved,” says Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas School of Public Health. Ultimately, everyone has to evaluate their own risk tolerance, and in families with members who are vulnerable to the virus, a day at the zoo or amusement park may not be worth the chance of infection.
But for other Texans, a socially distanced diversion with all the right safety measures could be exactly what the doctor ordered. It’s been a long, hard six months filled with fear, uncertainty, and isolation; protecting everyone’s mental health matters too. “I think there’s value for people to get outside and do things,” says David Lakey, a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force.
Angela Clendenin, an instructional assistant professor of epidemiology at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, seconds that. “Being able to go out and find creative ways to enjoy the outdoors and responsible ways to enjoy some of these attractions that people would normally be visiting on summer vacation—I think it’s incredibly important for our mental health,” she says.
Americans are seriously struggling with their mental health during the pandemic. By mid-July, an estimated 44 percent of adult Texans reported symptoms of depression or anxiety. The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Houston has been fielding eight hundred calls a week to its help line, compared with just fifty pre-pandemic, the Houston Chronicle reported this month.
Of course, when people do choose to venture out for a much-needed respite, not all scenarios carry the same level of threat. If park visitors wear masks and give their neighbors a wide berth, that’s obviously preferable to shouting while packed together in a confined space. In practical terms, a stroll about the zoo has the potential to be much safer than screaming on a ride, grabbing waterslide handrails, or crowding into an indoor aquarium. Amusement parks may present an especially high risk, according to the Texas Medical Association.
Employees, meanwhile, don’t necessarily interact all that much with guests at a place like the zoo unless they work in a gift shop, Clendenin says. But they still need to adhere to social distancing, and when custodial staff disinfect bathrooms, they should change gloves regularly, avoid touching their faces, wear a mask, and wash their hands.
At any zoo or park, there’s always one game-changing variable for guests: attractions are a choose-your-own-adventure. Unlike the confined spaces of a grocery store or a driver’s license office, these venues offer flexibility. Visitors hold the power to decide which path they take and when or whether to leave. They can easily move around exhibitions, avoid potentially dangerous indoor areas, pack hand sanitizer, and even skip a ride that gives them pause.
“If there are a lot of people looking at the monkeys, then you go look at the seals,” says Troisi. “You control how close you are to other people.”
I took that advice to heart on my visit to the Houston Zoo. On the way there, I felt both excited and trepidatious; there was something so foolhardy about my plans, especially in the shadow of the Texas Medical Center complex only a few blocks away. On August 7, the day I giggled at monkeys, 182 new coronavirus patients were admitted to the medical center’s hospitals. Houston has been hit hard by the pandemic, and I didn’t want to do anything to compound the issue.
But selfishly, I still craved engagement. For months, the highlight of my day had been binge-watching TV on my couch. I couldn’t shake the feeling that walking under the sun among strangers in a lively labyrinth of sights and sounds might be one way to restore some semblance of normalcy, hopefully without infecting anyone.
And at times, that hypothesis checked out. But the experiment wasn’t always comfortable.
When my partner and I pulled into the zoo parking lot, I was surprised to see it filled with hundreds of cars. The Houston Zoo declined to share visitor statistics but said in a statement that it “continues to experience significant financial challenges.” Zoos around the country are struggling financially due to low visitation. Dan Ashe, the president of the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums, told the Associated Press that his member organizations “are hitting 20 to 50 percent of their normal revenue targets” during the pandemic; many are resorting to furloughs or layoffs.
In its statement, the Houston Zoo said it asks guests who feel sick not to visit. It also emphasized safety measures, such as “free hand sanitizer stations,” required online reservations, and cleaning protocols around “high-touch surfaces.”
But it admittedly felt strange to just waltz in. I had expected spaced-out lines, with employees taking temperatures and screening guests for symptoms. Instead, I walked right up to the entrance, where someone quickly scanned my e-ticket, then sent me on my way. Once I got to the zoo’s main hub, I overheard a staff photographer cheerily asking someone if they wanted their picture taken. I skipped surprisingly long queues for indoor exhibits to walk deeper into the 55-acre park.
Pathways around the zoo had been redrawn in one large loop, with white fences reinforcing the flow of traffic. There weren’t any paper maps, so unless visitors had the foresight to pull up a digital edition (I didn’t), the new design lent itself to confusion. After passing enough blockades and vague signage, I gave up on trying to understand where I was going and just enjoyed the twists and turns.
Though the zoo requires face masks for all visitors ages ten and older, it took mere minutes for me to spot an adult who wasn’t wearing their mask properly, and minor infractions added up as I stopped by the monkeys, the cougar, and the giraffes. At one point, I overheard a woman ushering her child toward the carousel with an offhand comment: “We’ve gotta wash our hands pretty good!” Most children at the zoo weren’t wearing any kind of face covering; kids under ten years old are exempt from Governor Greg Abbott’s mask mandate, despite the fact that they can contract and spread COVID-19.
When I neared the gorilla enclosure, I passed through a large indoor viewing area, where the sweet relief of air-conditioning was quickly overshadowed by a legion of unmasked children charging through automatic doors. As they buzzed around the room, touching everything, they squealed with excitement. I, in turn, headed back to the sweltering outdoors.
But for the most part, families kept to themselves and played by the rules. They were there for a promenade or to celebrate a birthday, and they naturally spread out at distanced tables to take a break or eat a snack. As long as we all kept six feet apart, I usually felt safe. I fawned over a baby elephant, marveled at a jaguar, and watched a black bear pace to and fro. Once I or my partner felt uneasy, we moved on to the next exhibit.
When the heat grew unbearable, I found plenty of empty benches where I could sit down or relish a sip of water. Everywhere had enough space to at least pass through, though sometimes I chose not to linger. Families gathered around the elephants, and though I also wanted to get up close, I knew it wasn’t worth the risk.
I thought I would spend half a day at the zoo, but I lasted only a few hours before reaching my limit. I said goodbye to the sea lions and all their friends, climbed into my car, pulled off my face shield and mask, and breathed again.
Did I have fun? Yes. Would I do it again? Probably. Still, every decision felt fraught, and visitors can expect to sweat buckets in layers of protective gear.
Subconsciously, I think I was searching for a remnant of normalcy. When the youngest visitors gasped, “Wow!” or “Look, a lion!” I briefly found it. But the mere fact that my surroundings were all filtered through the foggy film of a face shield reminded me that this was not a pre-pandemic world. I had to accept that and enjoy what I could.
In the end, what I found most comforting about the zoo was not the nostalgia it conjured, but instead its inherent absurdity. Having a toddler balk at my face shield was dystopian, but when you think about it, going to a zoo at all—peering through glass at animals in facsimiles of their natural habitats—is already pretty odd. Thousands of miles from Asia, the elephants had somehow figured out how to adapt to a new normal.
Maybe I could too.