GARDEN CITY — The sidewalks are uncharacteristically empty at the Lee Richardson Zoo in Garden City. The lockdown because of COVID-19 has kept visitors away from the zoo and the animals have noticed that something is missing.


Many of the animals at the zoo are social creatures and need the interaction of humans, said Max Lake, zoo deputy director.


No reopening date for the zoo has been set.That decision will be up to Finney County Health Department and the City of Garden City.


When the zoo reopens, Lake anticipates visitors will come back strong.


"Southwest Kansas supports and loves the zoo," Lake said.


There has been a shift in day to day operation schedules. The 30-member staff remains at full strength and has been divided into Team A and Team B. Before the crisis, some of the staff schedules would overlap but to reduce contact, the staff was divided into two teams that have separate schedules, Lake said.


Each team has to have staff members trained to deal with all the animals.


"It's hard to get someone who can take care of a lion. Lions are intimidating and you have to know what you are doing," Lake said.


Besides the staff reorganization, the zoo has canceled its mobile presentations at schools and are providing more programs and classes online. Programs go out to the Garden City and Holcomb School systems as well as other districts across the state and the country.


As for the animals, some have noticed the guests are not there. So the staff has increased social enrichment.


This is done with great care because some of the animals are susceptible to coronavirus.


All primates are susceptible to human illnesses, including coronavirus, so the staff wears extra layers of protection when working with animals. The staff also works closely with the zoo veterinarian.


Some enrichment includes puzzle feeders that require the animal to figure out a puzzle in order to get their food. Staff does extra training with lions to do blood draws. Rhinos get good-size twigs and branches. They eat the bark then the stripped branch is put in with the snow leopard for play time.


"All the big cats just love it," Lake said.


The big cats also love to eat coffee and roll around in it.


The zoo is undergoing three construction projects that will open in late July or early August: A new flamingo habitat will increase the existing space and become a breeding facility; a multi-species habitat will include three species of lemurs; a new hospital and quarantine area will replace a much older facility. The new facility will feature an operating room, dental room, autopsy facility and a quarantine building for all new animals at the zoo. The current hospital will be remodeled for offices for management and staff, Lake said.


Hutton Construction has provided additional safety equipment for all contractors at the project.


Lee Richardson Zoo is at 312 East Finnup Drive in Garden City. It opened in 1927 and covers 47 acres. It has 300 animals and 125 different species. Out of 238 Association of Zoos and Aquariums members, Lee Richardson Zoo is one of only 12 that is free to the public.