The staff at the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Mass., is getting creative when it comes to keeping animals happy and healthy during the coronavirus pandemic. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Stone Zoo assistant curator Pete Costello about how the animals are doing, and what it's like to work at a zoo when there are no guests around. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Do I hear flamingos behind you?
Pete Costello: Yeah, I'm currently standing in the Caribbean Coast exhibit with the flamingos. It's the beginning of the breeding season for them, so they're very chatty.
Mathieu: The Caribbean Coast sounds pretty good right now. What's it like to be working at a zoo when there's no one around?
Costello: It's really strange. Normally when we walk through the zoo, we spend a lot of time interacting with the guests. So walking from one end of the zoo to the other can take you a half hour [to] 45 minutes. Now it's a five-minute walk. So it's really interesting having no guests here.
Mathieu: It doesn't sound like the flamingos are bothered by it.
Costello: No, nothing bothers the flamingos.
Mathieu: What's the new procedure for you guys? I mentioned the videos that we've seen with animals truly walking around zoos looking through the cages at each other. Are you allowing them to roam or are you doing anything differently while we're in the midst of all this?
Costello: Most of the collection is not allowed to roam; they live in their individual exhibits. But some of the program animals we have brought out and about on the warmer days. So we have a yellow-footed tortoise [and] he visited a couple exhibits. And we have a screech owl that is a program animal with the Education Department. They've been bringing him out and introducing him to the otters and the gibbons and stuff like that.
Mathieu: What's the purpose? Is that for your own entertainment or the other animals' experience, somehow?
Costello: It's actually for the animals' experience, because the staff spends a lot of time on enrichment for the animals, just keeping them active and their mental well-being — just keeping them occupied [with] things to do. You have to figure with no guests here, some of the animals really interact a lot with the guests. The white-cheeked Gibbons that we have are a great example of that. They're one of the few animals here right now that you can tell they really miss not having the guests around. So we're trying to keep them stimulated, doing things like bringing the program animals over. We bought an industrial bubble machine, which is really interesting. The primates love it. They don't necessarily love the bubbles, they like watching the machine produce the bubbles. It has this spinning bubble wand inside that they just stare at for hours.
Mathieu: What makes you say they don't like the bubbles?
Costello: Because when the bubbles go into their exhibit, they don't touch them. They'll just kind of watch them and stuff. We've given it to the Coatis, which are like a South American raccoon. They will actually move around and try to catch the bubbles. The bush dogs are the same thing — they try to catch some of the bubbles. But the primates are more concerned with the inner workings of it.
Mathieu: That is a riot! Did you bring in that machine just now or is that something that you will use for this purpose?
Costello: We had one small one that we use, so we brought in a bigger one for this purpose. So we have a small portable one used for that purpose and we could hide it behind some shrubbery and stuff so it's not as obvious.
Mathieu: I wonder, Pete, about their personalities and how they change. You mentioned the primates in particular.
Costello: Not necessarily their personality, it's just their behavior. On a normal day when there's a lot of guests here at the zoo, the keepers would walk by the exhibit and the animal may glance at us, but it's not going to really react. Now when we walk by the exhibits, they come running right over. They just want some stimulation. The staff is getting very creative. So it's good. It basically keeps the animals occupied and prevents them from getting bored.
Mathieu: It's actually really amazing to hear that they're hungry for attention. A lot of times you go to a zoo and you wonder if you're interfering with them or if they prefer you go away.
Costello: I will say before this came up, some of these species, I'm kind of surprised. The North American river otters are one of those animals that most of the time they'll come over and they'll look when there's a crowd of people, but they won't really interact. They're one of the animals that we are definitely seeing that need a little bit more stimulation.
Mathieu: We all just want to be around people, Pete.
Costello: Yeah, we do. Yeah, I definitely miss them.
Mathieu: You know that movie "Night at the Museum"? Do you feel like you're the night watchman walking around the zoo?
Costello: It's really odd. The social distancing has been great and the way we split up our routine, we're staying pretty far apart during the day. Each of us has our own routine to do, so [we're] not interacting with guests, but we're also not really interacting with other staff that much. So it is just kind of us and the animals.
Mathieu: I know there's still work to be done; you welcomed some new residents recently. Can you tell us about the Mexican gray wolves?
Costello: Yeah, we are super excited. We got a pack of six Mexican gray wolves. They actually turn two years old next week. The wolf exhibit has been empty since last November, so we brought him in in March, they went through the standard 30 day quarantine and then we moved them on to exhibit about 10 days ago. So normally, Mexican gray wolves [are a] very shy species. And this group actually came from a facility that wasn't open to the public, so they weren't used to seeing people at all. So the timing of us moving them to the exhibit and the zoo being closed actually for this species worked out really well. But this actual individual group is very personable, so when we go up there, they actually do come running right down and [are] ready to interact with us a little bit. So it's been really interesting, but very exciting. It's a great project. They're an endangered species. It's actually a reintroduction program; the Mexican gray wolf was technically extinct in the wild.
Mathieu: So you're easing them into life in Massachusetts. Can we see them on a feed anywhere?
Costello: Not right now. It is something we are talking about.