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.
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The binturong girls, Poppy and Thistle, munch on some yummy watermelon. Photo by Meaghan Susi

All the keepers tend to have a favorite animal, whether they admit it or not. We’re about to meet Fugate’s, the binturong.
Inside the dimly lit indoor enclosure, two beady, bleary eyes poke out from a mass of fur. For those who may not know, binturong are relatively small bear-like critters hailing from southeast Asia. They’re equipped with a good set of teeth, a good et of claws and a lengthy prehensile tail.

“All the things you need to be a total badass, right? Yet they’re mostly fructivores. They’ve got the dentition of carnivores, but they prefer fruit.”

The zoo has three total: papa Ricky, mama Poppy and baby Thistle, though Thistle is just as big as her dad. Ironically, Thistle was the smallest of three kits born back in March of 2019, always the last to get her mother’s milk.

“We brought her to the hospital and she was hand-reared for eight weeks. We then successfully reintroduced her back to the family, which is fantastic because binturong are not well represented in zoos,” Fugate says. “They’re used a lot in education, mostly females because the males tend to get aggressive. But once females are taken out as kits and trained for education, they’re not part of the breeding program anymore. AZA zoos are trying to bring them back. So, Thistle being able to think of herself as a binturong, not a person, and to eventually breed… It’s pretty important.”

The only problem? Like her siblings before her, Thistle was meant to relocate to another zoo for breeding purposes, but, as with most things nowadays, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into things.

Moreover, the animal moving system is like a domino effect: Zoos often have to wait for an animal to move out before they can move one in. If one zoo is backed up, many more are often affected. Expense is another hindrance, especially when many facilities are tightening their budgets. Many animals ready to leave the nest, like Thistle, end up stuck in limbo.

But for now, she doesn’t seem too bothered. Outside, Fugate coaxes the girls onto exhibit; he jokingly calls Thistle a rotten kid for stubbornly refusing to leave her indoor nap spot. She and Poppy eventually lope out at the promise of snacks, and I see that their claws are well-suited for climbing the jungle gym-like structure in their enclosure. “Thistle, the little devil, was on top of this structure within three days of coming out here for the first time,” Fugate says. “I had to go up with a pole saw and trim back the branches as much as possible so she wouldn’t try and jump and hurt herself.”

As if summoned, Thistle comes down to take a banana from Fugate’s outstretched hand, placing her paw on his forearm to steady herself. Though the binturong are seemingly indifferent to whether visitors hang around or not, they are, at the very least, equally taken with their handler.

Willie bleats in the distance, signaling that we’re late for breakfast. When we’re back in the barn, Fugate hauls the hay out, along with bowls of the alpacas’ food. A young boy and girl with their mother watch as he performs an intricate routine of moving Willie and the alpacas into separate stalls so they don’t get too greedy. The rest of his morning consists of cleaning up each exhibit. He’ll eat lunch, work on odd projects like fixing a loose board he found on the farmyard fence, give out more meals and perform final lockups before heading out around 4:30.

“We’re back on normal schedules now, but we still don’t interact like we used to, eating lunch together and what not,” he says. “But in terms of the day-to-day operations and keeping things going, we’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve still been able to do my job. But I know the financial situation is tough. I’m well aware of that.”

RWPZ isn’t out of the woods yet. Goodman says that while he and his team had tried everything in their power to ensure that the whole zoo could get through the pandemic together, they sadly had to make some tough calls.

“We have a $10 million budget and we were projected to be down about $5 million. We did, unfortunately, have to let a handful of people go as well as have everybody remaining on one-day-a-week furloughs. We’re down about 30 percent of our workforce right now and everybody is working harder than ever.”

Another tough change includes suspending the New England cottontail breeding program.

“It takes a lot of work to breed and raise those animals, so, being short staffed and everything else, we decided to put breeding on hold,” he says. “Being on a tight budget has made us cut back conservation efforts we support around the world. Conservation is still such an important part of our mission, though, so we can’t give up on it. I just can’t wait to get it back up to where it should be.”

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A red panda. Photo via Roger Williams Park Zoo

While Roger the Red Panda, the zoo’s mascot, might not be making appearances at events or meet and greets any time soon, endangered species like his real-life counterpart, both at the zoo and outside of it, still need help.

“Our emergency fund to date is close to the $400,000 mark. And people have been happy to come back once we
reopened. We’ve gotten a lot of support,” Goodman says. “But I think many have also felt, ‘The zoo’s open now, they’re fine.’ We still need a lot of help, whether through donations or continuing to visit. There’s some scary numbers out there that say anywhere from a third to a half of cultural institutions like zoos and museums might shut down permanently.”

It is scary to think of the zoo ever shutting down permanently. Coming up on its 150th anniversary in 2022, the zoo has served generations of Rhode Islanders. Who around these parts can say they don’t have a picture with the centennial dog statue or a fond memory from a class trip? The zoo is ingrained in our community. Besides being a great recreational facility, it’s an instrument for state conservation and environmental education. It’s also a regular host of blood drives, coat drives and food drives as well as Dream Night for critically ill patients at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

“This isn’t my zoo, it’s the people’s zoo,” says Goodman. “Our staff never missed a beat and our animals did not get one ounce less of care. We did not let up on our animal welfare or veterinary care or husbandry. That was all maintained at our normal, incredibly high standards. And that’s a testament to the staff and how hard they were working despite all the circumstances.”

Fugate, for his part, says keepers care about the animals, so of course, they show up.

As I turn to leave, Fugate is lightheartedly scolding the alpacas for getting in the way of his rake, and Willie is happily munching away on a carrot. The giggles of children as they watch the goats make me smile beneath my mask.