Simba the lion is roaring a lot more these days. The peacocks at Popcorn Park are noisier than usual as well. And most of the animals are more excited than they've ever been when employees start their day.

John Bergmann, director of the zoo in Forked River, thinks that all has something to do with the site being free of visitors since the middle of March.

"It's a funny feeling, walking around with no one out there but ourselves," Bergmann told New Jersey 101.5.

 

Global pandemic or not, the animals at New Jersey's zoos still need to be cared for. So it's business as usual for zookeepers whose main job is to track and maintain the health of the wild animals that are typically on display to the public.

"All the animals are getting attention, fed and watered like we were open," Bergmann said.

On March 17, zoos were included in an executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy that required certain businesses to close temporarily in order to stem the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

To limit the odds of infection among staff, Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange has two animal-care teams that don't cross paths. All full-time and part-time employees devoted to animal care are still working, typically in 10-hour shifts.

Whether or not guests are filing in and out, a male lion still needs to eat about 13 pounds of food per day, along with a "life check" every morning.

Erin Mowatt, director of animal operations, said most of the animals don't appear to notice or mind the change in daily activity.

"They're using this time to maybe explore their exhibit and do some things that you may not necessarily see when we are crowded," Mowatt said.

The zoo is typically only closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Quiet pathways and exhibits around the clock make a typical workday "interesting" for staff who are used to a "huge hustle and bustle," Mowatt added. But for many zookeepers, it's a "dream" to be able to focus fully on the animals without the distraction of other routine business operations.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.