After monitoring the weather and working on guidelines with the Centers for Disease Control, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and other zoos – including Zoo Atlanta, Central Florida Zoo and Baton Rouge Zoo – officials s from the Hattiesburg Zoo reopened the facility to the public at 10 a.m. June 5 for the first time since closing on March 16 because of the risk of COVID-19.
“We have been working with our national industry to establish a reopening plan so that our guests have a safe and enjoyable visit with their families,” said Rick Taylor, executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, which runs the zoo. “The outpouring of care and support during our closure has been amazing, and we have been eagerly waiting to present a safe environment in which we can enjoy everyone’s smiling faces again.”
In Phase 1 of reopening, guests will be limited to 25 percent of the regular capacity of the zoo, entry times will be staggered and tickets should be purchased in advance at hattiesburgzoo.com. Tickets for zoo entry may be scanned from a smartphone or printed for scanning at entry.
Ticket reservations also will apply to annual pass holders, and annual passes, photo identifications and timed tickets will be checked upon entry. Once a ticket has been purchased, no refunds or exchanges will be issued.
Guests will be asked to practice social distancing procedures and to follow any and all state or local orders regarding face masks or coverings.
Zoo officials are currently adding more sanitizing procedures at high-touch areas of the facility and have increased the number of sanitizing stations throughout the grounds. Distancing markers have been placed at all normal lineup areas, including the entry, food service, attractions and popular animal exhibits.
For the time being, the zoo will operate in a one-way direction, and all indoor facilities – including the Asbury Discovery Center and the Education Building – will remain closed. Areas where guests may have close contact, such as the South American Exhibit Pier and the Tiger Tower, have been restricted.
Keeper chats and animal encounters have been temporarily postponed.
The Safari Grill and the Snack Station near the zoo’s Australia exhibit will be open with a limited menu along with properly adjusted outdoor seating. Protocols will be adjusted as appropriate for the safety of guests and animals.
“This first week may be challenging as we enter uncharted waters together,” Taylor said. “We all may occasionally get frustrated with these new ways to enjoy the zoo. But let’s agree to work together, because being together – albeit distanced – is better than apart.
“Rascal (the obnoxious Cockatoo), Tina (the prima donna Crowned Crane), Craig (the staid Galapagos Tortoise), Kevin (the rotund Kune Kune pig), Maya (the stealthy black Jaguar) and all of the rambunctious Nigerian Dwarf Goats are wondering where you all have been. Leggs, the Tarantula, has not indicated a preference.”
In addition, Wisconsin artist Jill Wettstein, who has been following the zoo’s social media channels during its closure, has painted several rocks featuring popular zoo animals, which will be placed around the zoo for guests to find on opening day. The zoo also is encouraging local residents to hide their own rocks throughout the zoo and post any discovered rocks on social media with the hashtags #hburzoorocks, #jillfcsrocks and #kindnessrocks.
Individuals can also private message the zoo on Facebook to send painted rocks to be hidden.
Annual pass holders who have had their membership benefits impacted by the pandemic will have the expiration dates on their passes extended by an additional two months.
In the meantime, the Hattiesburg Convention Commission is working on plans to slowly and safely open its other facilities, including the Saenger Theater, Lake Terrace Convention Center and the African American Military History Museum.