Daryl Austin: If our recent trip to Hogle Zoo is the future, we’re going to be OK

Photos of Hogle Zoo courtesy of Daryl Austin

While I’ve fully supported all measures taken to this point to slow the spread of COVID-19 — and continue to support all social distancing measures still in place — I’ve become concerned about the many more lives we inadvertently put at risk with a prolonged shutdown. As a result, I’m happy to see many businesses and organizations (cautiously) opening their doors to the public again.

One such organization is Utah’s Hogle Zoo.

My wife and kids and I ventured up there recently to try out the new timed entry system the zoo put in place when they reopened last Saturday. I was impressed with what we saw. I’ve speculated about how amusement parks would feel in a post-shutdown world and, if yesterday is any indication of what’s to come, then I’d say the future looks bright indeed.

After all, if you’ve ever wondered what it would feel like to have a private tour of an entire zoo, this is probably the closest you’re ever going to get.

Hogle Zoo has put in place a reservation system that requires all entrants — even annual pass members — to reserve a two-hour time slot for arrival.

My family chose 3 p.m. on Tuesday, and when we entered the entire park it felt almost empty — like all the animals and staff were there just for us. It was a welcome feeling indeed.

One of the many safety measures the zoo has put in place is a one-way foot traffic system which had two benefits that were obvious to me. The first was that I no longer needed a map to ensure my family saw every exhibit. We just stayed on the path they had in place and ended up seeing every exhibit the zoo offered. Except a handful of indoor exhibits, that is. Anything indoors is closed.

The other benefit to the new system is that my family of six was spaced out from other zoo-goers so that we only occasionally saw the same three families throughout our entire visit.

That means we had the giraffe pavilion at the African Savanna all to ourselves. Same with the seal and polar bear exhibits at Rocky Shores. Ditto for the Asian Highlands where the zoo’s big cats roam. Even the normally crowded Elephant Encounter consisted of just us and one other family in sight.

Another benefit came from having far more intimate interactions with the animals. When it’s only you on one end of the glass and a massive polar bear on the other it offers a whole new feeling compared to past crowds of people all vying for that same great vantage point.

I also noticed that at two different exhibits the zoo staff came out between us and the family before us to clean and sanitize the exhibit windows. All lids from trash cans around the park had also been removed to prevent anyone from touching the same opening. In fact, we never touched a single door or surface the entire time we were at the zoo, as all doors were propped open and all surfaces were protected with signs and/or barriers.

And if you’re running short on hand sanitizer at home, you’ll be grateful for the chance to Purell at any of the many sanitizing stations strategically positioned around the park.

Our experience wasn’t without any downsides, however. Our kids lamented the closures of the Creekside playground and Lighthouse Point splash zone along with the Conservation Carousel and Zoofari Express train ride.

And my wife and I missed dine-in seating and seeing the many unique species who were closed off in the Small Animal Building.

But those were relatively easy tradeoffs to make in exchange for such a unique and private zoo experience.

Of course no amount of enjoyment could begin to compensate or diminish the very real devastation that COVID-19 has caused throughout the world. But I sincerely endeavor to find the silver lining wherever it may be. For me, any measure of light is worth celebrating amid so much darkness.

Near the end of our visit we saw the words "We Missed You" written in chalk across a big log in the Great Apes exhibit. I immediately felt a lump in my throat because it turns out I'd missed the feeling of normalcy I felt that day more than I'd realized.

No matter, with such a great experience behind us, my family and I will be glad to return to that feeling again soon — face masks and all.

Daryl Austin

Daryl Austin is a Utah-based journalist from Orem. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, The Guardian, USA Today and Newsweek.