The Saint Louis Zoo: Caring for Critters, Customers and Keepers During COVID-19

November 1, 2021 • Previsor

In 2017, we featured the Saint Louis Zoo in our very first episode. A community favorite, the zoo serves as a local getaway for city residents. It provides education, fun, and a family experience. Bringing together guests, staff, and animals – the center of the experience – means zoo safety is a big priority. COVID-19 has changed the way many businesses work. Five years after our first interview, we’re checking in with the Saint Louis Zoo again to see how safety efforts have evolved in the midst of a global pandemic.

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we welcome back Domini Montgomery, Director of Safety and Risk Services for the Saint Louis Zoo, and our very first guest. Montgomery plays a key role in keeping employees and guests safe, and has expertise in infectious diseases. She’s also played a critical role in the helping the zoo reopen safely during the pandemic.

First, we’ll talk about how the Saint Louis Zoo responded to COVID. Then, we’ll discuss the new safety measures they put in place. Finally, we’ll share some of the ways the zoo has adapted in challenging times.

Zoo safety: Building a strong foundation in science

The Saint Louis Zoo is a different experience for each person who walks through its gate. Guests walk the exhibits as families, elementary school classes, or animal lovers. Staff help educate visitors, care for the animals, and direct the customer experience. Further, every animal needs expert care to be at their best, all year long. But safety needs to be common in every experience.

Science is at the center of every safety effort. Montgomery has a background in biology and epidemiology. “Here at the zoo, safety is top of mind for everyone,” she began. Zoos are unique workplaces. Disease control, safe handling of materials, and physical and mental wellbeing are vital concerns – for both people and animals. “We are a science-based organization, and I really do mean it when I say we believe in the science,” she added. “Science helped us inform our decisions from the beginning.”

In-house taskforce helps every opinion count

An in-house taskforce was created to help the zoo adjust in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are volunteer members, key experts from across the business, and a full-time epidemiologist. “Teamwork really is the most important thing here,” she continued. When COVID-19 began, it was important to hear from everyone. Guests and staff shared their thoughts. “We asked them what did they need to feel safe to come back to the zoo, either in an on-campus work perspective or as a guest perspective.”

The team reviews information from a number of sources. First comes local and state health guidelines. Then, recommendations from guests and staff. They meet regularly to review data and talk about the best solutions.

Putting zoo safety into practice

To continue operating safely in the pandemic, the zoo needed to make some key changes. “People want to be here,” Montgomery shared. “We’re a refuge to the public.” In order to continue in that role, the guest and staff experience had to change.

Safety measures for guests

Like many businesses, the zoo reduced its capacity. It is free to visit, but a reservation is now required. Outdoor spaces were the first to reopen, followed by limited indoor spaces. A staff member counts each guest outside to keep crowds to a minimum, while others make sure guests are masked. Some entrances and doors have been closed. This one-way traffic also helps increase public safety. Hand washing and sanitizing stations are now posted around the property.

Montgomery finds that some people enjoy the zoo more now. Reduced capacity created a more personal – and less busy – experience.

Safety measures for staff

Staff across the zoo were all impacted differently during COVID. Some were able to work remotely. However, others were key to keeping the zoo open. Animals still need care in the midst of a temporary closure. It was important to ask staff for their concerns, especially those who worked indoors. Buildings are not only exhibits, but offices and workspaces.

Staff come together to keep the zoo running. A grounds team helps maintain a clean environment, hauling trash and removing animal waste. Customer-facing staff have new duties. They enforce mask compliance, scan reservations, and direct guests through new procedures. An on-site security team helps visitors to their vehicles, and stays on top of any injury reports. Health screenings and hybrid work schedules help maintain a healthy workplace.

Increased animal safety

Animal safety measures were already implemented before the pandemic. As a result, the zoo was in a good place when looking at needed changes. Staff already practiced important behaviors, like cleaning and covering their shoes before entering a habitat. Some animals are sensitive to human germs and viruses. COVID is no exception. Additional barricades were added to keep zoo visitors a little further back. Animal nutrition staff and keepers help maintain a sense of normalcy for the animals. They keep enclosures clean, animals fed and watered, and a stash of items that offer enrichment.

Orangutan at the Saint Louis Zoo

Changing with the times

With the help of its staff, the zoo reopened to the community in a new way. But it hasn’t been easy. “Operating during the pandemic has certainly been different and stressful for all of our departments here on campus,” Montgomery admitted. COVID fatigue has impacted both staff and guests. But science helps reinforce decisions about safety at the zoo – for every person and animal involved.

The zoo has seen its share of challenges. “I wish I could say that we are immune, but we are not. We still have open jobs posted on our website. We are also struggling to keep folks here, and to get folks inside the door.” For Montgomery, it’s about asking, “What can we do as an employer, and an organization, to keep you here?” The zoo offers 40 hours to employees to handle anything COVID-related. For example, quarantining at home, or caring for kids who are. “It has really helped us keep our case count down and our morale up.”

The zoo has always been an interactive experience. Many of these hands-on options have returned. Some have come back in a new way. Stingray stations are now numbered and spaced for safety. Sea lion shows are back with a reduced audience. Behind the scenes tours are available. Virtual options, like webinars and educational talks, are a new option, too. “Like other businesses, we have still had a lot of obstacles to overcome, and we still continue to fight those,” Montgomery finished. “But ultimately, we’re just grateful to be open to the public and able to continue to live out our mission.”

For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, learn how to create a workplace that attracts the right talent in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode.

November 1, 2021
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