ORLANDO, Fla. — It can be fun to daydream about animals taking over Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park while it’s closed. Maybe lions would venture off their rock at the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction for a new sunny spot or the bats would go crazy or the elephants would take a dip near the “Rivers of Light” amphitheater. Or maybe they’d make a break for it over to Epcot. You know, just a bunch of mammals, blowing off steam in the coronavirus era.
Of course, that’s pure fantasy land. Instead, Mark Penning, Disney Parks’ vice president for animals, science and environment, filled me in on the current reality, which has some Disney employees still on duty to take care of all the animals on Walt Disney World property, which includes not only the Animal Kingdom crew but also creatures at Epcot (The Living Seas) and at Fort Wilderness.
“I feel very confident right now that our animals are all in a great place,” says Penning, who has been with the company since 2012.
We chatted about baby zebras, the animals’ air-conditioned bedrooms, an unusual Earth Day 2020, the physical beauty of a theme park that’s (temporarily) closed and his educated guess about which DAK residents might be missing park guests.
Here’s what Penning, in his own words, had to say …
On disrupting the routine
“Animals are kind of like people in the sense that they like routine; they like know what’s coming. And you know, the surprises are not something that they, you know, really want to have too often. So, the park is definitely different right now. … We study their behavior. It’s not just a matter of throwing food out and, you know, animals are going to be fine. We study them really carefully. We’ve got amazing scientists that understand what the animals are trying to tell us and how they’re behaving.
“We’re trying to keep the same routines, you know, same times that we feed. We provide enrichment for them to keep them thinking and doing different things. They’re doing well at the moment, but we’re really looking forward to opening the park up and sharing.”
On making contact
“There are some animals, like in our Affection Section, that love contact with people, so they’re standing around saying, “Why am I not getting petted today?” So people are going through and talking and scratching and just making contact because that’s what they love.”
On the getting to the gorillas
“I think it’s fair to say the four bachelor gorillas quite enjoy a little more peace and quiet. … Whereas the family really enjoy, I think, having people around because they find it entertaining.
“We’ve got this young-ish gorilla, Lilly. Lilly’s just the funniest character. She will take a banana leaf or something like that or a piece of enrichment, wrap it around herself and then roll down the hill towards the window where the guests are watching. And the guests find it hysterically funny, and she loves the fact that what she did it made everybody react, so she’ll go and do it again. I think she’s probably looking up and saying “This is a little boring. Where’s my audience?”“
On sleeping habits
“To a very large extent, our animals have got an air-conditioned bedroom that they’re able to retire to when they when they choose.
“A lot of what we do is trying to give our animals choices and make them feel that they’re in control of their environment, because that just makes them more comfortable, more settled. They thrive that way.
“At Animal Kingdom at nighttime, when the last safari has gone through, most of those animals head to the barns because they really want to spend the night in their bedrooms.
“Whereas at Animal Kingdom Lodge, animals prefer to stay out at nighttime and then during the day, they’ll actually come in. … We want the animals to come in the backstage areas for a short time every day. And the reason for that is, is we want to be able to be up close and see that each one is healthy.”
On animals and COVID-19
“I think our strategy can be summarized very simply as we’ve got great staff, we have incredibly talented veterinarians that are really smart and animal-care staff that follow CDC guidelines — face masks and that kind of thing — to protect animals and to protect our staff too. We also are in regular contact with the experts. You know, there are some folks out there that specialize in this kind of thing, whether they are virologists, epidemiologists, pathologists. We’re in contact with them as well because we want to evolve our thinking as the latest science comes out, so it’s a learning time for all of us, but we’re following the guidelines to the letter and being really careful. … I’m in contact with the folks from the Bronx Zoo (where tigers tested positive for coronavirus) … and at the moment we’re feeling very comfortable with our animals.”
On Asha and J.B., the baby zebras
“The two them, of course, as youngsters are just frolicking all over the place, bouncing around like pogo sticks on the savanna and doing great. But, of course, this is their normal. The savannas are empty; there are not a lot of trucks coming through, and so we’re going to have to acclimate them again. … We do send trucks through every day as are people checking on them, putting up feed and whatever, but we’ll certainly be careful about acclimating them again as we open up.”
On adjusting to the social-media spotlight
“I’m not the kind of guy that likes to be out on the stage in the spotlight. I’m more of a backstage kind of guy. But I’ve got to give credit to our public-affairs folks who I’ve been talking to for so long. We’ve got wonderful people, amazing animals and great stories to tell, and Disney is a storytelling company and we really should be able to get these stories out there — meaningful stories and stories of hope. People need stories of hope right now; it’s a difficult time for everyone.”
On questions for #AskDrMark
“There are a lot of recurring themes. And we were actually very pleasantly surprised that we were so many questions. … I would say that there are a lot of people who just care so much about the animals and want to know more, which is wonderful, and it’s really nice to have. And then there are a lot of people who also want to make a difference, and that’s I think what really energizes me is that certain people are saying “How do I want to be able to work with animals? How do I get to protect the environment?”“
On DAK in bloom
“It looks magnificent. It’s just beautiful at the moment because there is no horticulture team trimming away at the vegetation. The vegetation is really full and lush and beautiful at the moment. The park is filled out, there are blossoms everywhere, it’s full colors and gorgeous. It’s just such a beautiful place for us to be right now.”
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