It’s Been a Wild Year at Roger Williams Park Zoo

How the zoo’s mainstays, both two- and four-legged, are faring amid the pandemic.


Which brings us to today, an uncharacteristically warm morning
in late 2020 when the virus is still alive and well. Before entering the grounds around 8 a.m., I have my temperature taken and I’m asked COVID-screening questions (no red flags here!). Fugate and I are masked up, and instead of shaking hands, we jokingly bump shoes. Our itinerary for the day involves me tagging along as he performs his “runs.”

Screen Shot 2021 01 20 At 64831 PmFirst up is prepping the farm animals’ food. Willie, the zoo’s beloved twenty-five-year-old donkey, is on a weight-loss program. As Fugate fills a barrel of hay with water in the farmyard’s iconic barn, I learn soaking the hay for an hour leeches out the sugar — something Willie certainly doesn’t need. When I ask if Willie also put on the quarantine fifteen like the rest of us, Fugate laughs.

“You know what, he might have actually lost a little. Visitors always try to sneak him treats, but most people don’t realize that they’re not the only ones. If 100 people come through here…. It’s a lot,” he says. “Between the zoo being closed and having fewer visitors, he hasn’t been getting as many treats. The farm is definitely one of the areas where the animals have noticed the absence of people.”

Willie is a total people donkey, trotting right up when we visit his enclosure and shoving his face in my hand so I can give his cheek a good scratch. His yard-mates, the alpacas, also seem pleased by our arrival (though I keep my distance from the light brown one, Chloe, who is a spitter) as are the three Shetland sheep and the eleven goats across the way. Petunia, a tough old Guinea Hog broad who survived cancer, is housed by herself, as is Moya the barn owl; both seem quite content without the mayhem of roommates. As

Fugate introduces me to each animal, sprinkling in facts about their backgrounds, personalities and diets, I ask if he learned all of this in school. “I did get a bachelor’s degree in zoology, but to be completely frank with you, on the job is really how you learn.”
We exit the barn and I follow him to an office where we read notes from previous shifts.

“It helps us keep track of changes with the animals. I can see last Wednesday the vet tech came down and drew blood from the sheep. That kind of information is useful, less because we’re concerned with test results, but more if, let’s say, one of them develops an ulceration or an abscess,” Fugate says. “These allow us to know everything going into a shift.”

He says it was especially useful when teams A and B needed to communicate.

“When we were out for three or four days at a time, these would be really important because things might happen, and you couldn’t see each other to catch up. We would leave notes and send the occasional text or email just to say, ‘here’s something you need to know’ or ‘everything is same old, same old.’ ”

Because we have to wait awhile for some of the farm animals’ food (ahem, Willie’s) to finish settling in, it’s on to the next run. Fugate leads me into a building attached to an outdoor exhibit with a pool. Mishontoo, the river otter, is already waiting for us inside.

“Otters eat both fish and meat,” Fugate says as he opens a mini fridge and starts gathering ingredients, “but they often need supplemental vitamins because the frozen fish we have loses those vitamins. So, Mishy here gets a vitamin E and a vitamin D supplement. Chances are, she gets enough from the meat, but better safe than sorry — especially because she is likely pregnant right now.”

He says it’s hard to know for sure just yet because otters experience delayed implantation. Though Mishy last bred in February, fertilized eggs don’t implant in otters’ uterine linings for eight to ten months, meaning she could very well give birth to a litter in February, so part of Mishy’s training involves preparing her for future medical exams.

“We work with her in what’s called protected contact: We have bars separating us. She is very tractable, but otters in general are not to be trusted. When they bite, they’re scary little animals,” he explains. “While we give her breakfast, we’ll go through a few maintenance behaviors.”

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Mishontoo the river otter. Photo by Meaghan Susi

The first food-motivated task is ensuring Mishy is comfortable climbing up onto a platform and staying still while her weight is taken. The second is guiding her into a horizontal tube secured to the side of the bars. This exposes her side to the keepers and allows them to poke her gently with a screwdriver tip, desensitizing her to hypothetical vaccinations. The third requires her to wriggle up a vertical tube and expose her belly.

“We have her hold this position a little longer because her fur is thick and we need to let the ultrasound gel penetrate. Stay. Touch,” Fugate warns Mishy as he lightly prods her stomach with the handle of the screwdriver. She passes with flying colors. “Good girl, mouse!”

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Photo by Meaghan Susi

This last exercise earns her the rest of her breakfast, which she gobbles up in an impressive thirty seconds. While Fugate cleans up the food prep area and checks to make sure all doors and locks are secure, I learn Mishy might not be the only one with a bun in the oven.

“We have had a lot of breeding lately,” Fugate confirms. “I don’t want to say the animals don’t enjoy people being here, but I think when keepers shift them back into their holdings at night, it’s disruptive. When there weren’t any visitors, we could give them their exhibit and the holding space all day long. They could decide where they went 24/7, and as far as increasing their comfort level for breeding, that helps a lot. I’m just speculating, but it’s certainly possible.”

Goodman, the executive director, echoes that. The flamingos laid eggs for the first time in more than twenty years this year and the tamandua looks ready to pop. There are definitely some first-time-in-a-long-time or first-time-ever-type births, he agrees.

Though Mishontoo’s likely pregnancy isn’t quarantine related, Fugate thinks she is another example of a zoo resident who missed the people.

“Once a little kid came by the outside exhibit and said, ‘Mama! They have water puppies!’ I thought that pretty much sums it up,” he says with a laugh. “But she loves kids just as much as they love her. They run back and forth in front of the glass and she swims or runs with them. I think she missed that.”

Fugate coaxes Mishontoo through her personal mini door to the outdoor enclosure. When she sees us, she swims right up to the glass, clearly expectant. Fugate throws a grape into the water and she dives for it, then balances it on her nose for a few seconds before letting it fall and starting the game again. Water puppy, indeed.