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Enlighten Me: Brandywine Zoo makeover continues through the pandemic

Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media

2020 has been a challenging year, especially for Delaware's visitor attractions.

One attraction fought through setbacks and ever-changing guidelines to pursue its expansion plans, while simultaneously protecting the health and safety of visitors and its animals, including those added as part of a new exhibit.

In this week’s Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media contributor Mark Fowser takes us to the Brandywine Zoo.

Near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, about nine months ago, the Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington broke ground on its Madagascar exhibit.

The opening of the exhibit in November is an example of how the zoo has fought through pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, such an occasion would likely have been celebrated with a grand opening, with invited guests and children on hand to provide the cheers.

Instead, the ribbon was quietly cut by Governor John Carney, Delaware Natural Resources Secretary Shawn Garvin, zoo officials and a few other guests during a ceremony shown on YouTube.

It does not, however, diminish the significance of the exhibit and the work that it took to bring it to reality.

"In October, we welcomed three radiated tortoises, with one from Seneca Park Zoo and two from the Miami Zoo, four Ring-tailed lemurs from the Bronx Zoo, two Black and White Ruffed lemurs from the Duke Lemur Center, and one male and one female Crowned lemur from the Duke Lemur Center," Garvin said.

Credit Mark Fowser / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Male and female Crowned lemurs are a centerpiece of the Brandywine Zoo's Madagascar exhibit.

The Crowned lemurs came as a breeding recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The hope is to have baby lemurs for visitors to enjoy.

The entire exhibit covers about 4,000 square feet. It cost $3.5-million to build. The money came from the state Bond Bill and a matching grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Visitors travel a walkway that goes up and around the exhibit. The lemurs in particular are very active, climbing, running, jumping, walking and interacting with each other.

"One of the things we were trying to do is make it so that we have multiple viewing areas. Each viewing area is a little bit different," Brandywine Zoo Director Brint Spencer said. "You can see the waterfall, hear the waterfall, or possibly both. We have animals that will sit down high, sit down low so no matter where you are you should have a good view of an animal in the exhibit."

It also includes informational displays about the wildlife, and why they are endangered in Madagascar. "It's a good educational opportunity, and it's a good conservation opportunity," Spencer said. "Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, and a lot of conservation issues that are affecting Madagascar are things that we can impact here in Delaware."

Such issues include deforestation, climate change and exotic animal trade.

Credit Mark Fowser / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The recently-opened, 4,000-square-foot Madagascar exhibit is a key part of the Brandywine Zoo's master plan.

In addition to dealing with a few construction setbacks, the zoo also closed early in the pandemic, then reopened - but in a COVID-19 world. In the midst of it all, Mark Shafer came aboard as Execurive Director of the Delaware Zoological Society.

The zoo reopened in June, but with several new procedures in place. For example, guests cannot simply show up at the gate.

"Back in the good old days, which would have been a year ago, people could just come in without making a reservation, and we could welcome them very naturally. But, because of COVID we need to make sure we have the right number of people in the zoo at any particular time," Shafer said.

Capacity is limited to 150 people during scheduled blocks of time in the morning and afternoon. Shafer said that has allowed the zoo to manage capacity "naturally."

"We disinfect touch points. We require people to wear masks. We ask for social distancing, and we have markers on the ground indicating what social distance looks like here at the zoo," Spencer added. "People know this is a safe place to come and they feel comfortable coming here."

Masks are required to be worn by anyone age five or older, and are strongly encouraged for children between two and five.

While Madagascar has become one of the largest display habitats at the zoo, construction continues elsewhere. A center for quarantining and taking care of animals is being built. The front of the zoo is also being overhauled as part of the Brandywine Zoo's master plan. The plan is to create a South American wetlands exhibit with flamingos, sloths and the pudu, the world's smallest deer.

"It just means that the Brandywine Zoo is really on an upswing," Shafer said. "The accomplishment of this, the joy it's going to bring for years is really rewarding."

"It's a very important step in the progress of building a more sustainable zoo going forward. We're very excited about that."

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