Otters are usually playful, but when the female otter at Montreal’s Biodome arrived last August and saw crowds of people gathering outside her enclosure, she hid in her sleeping quarters.
The otter, aged between two and three years old, is a relatively new arrival to the indoor zoo, and because she was not used to seeing people, it took her several months to acclimatize.
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“We thought it would take just six to eight weeks after she arrived in August, but it was definitely longer,” Biodome director Yves Paris said.
Paris said the otter benefitted from four months when the Biodome was closed to get used to her new surroundings without a mob of people watching her every move.
“We have been working really hard to train her and get her used to human presences,” veterinary technician Cylia Civelek explained while putting the otter through a training session last week.
“We had to block the window with paper, because she would run back to her night quarters when she saw people. Now she’s using more and more of her habitat with the presence of people.”
In recent days, the otter has perked up, Civelek said, and seems glad to see people returning to Biodome, after being closed since the beginning of October.
“She surprised us, honestly,” she said. “She has been out and about since the reopening. We were hoping she was going to be better, but it really surprised us how comfortable she was to see people around.”
Civelek added that the otter would be happier with a companion. However, COVID-19 has put a crimp in plans to find her a mate, as border restrictions have meant a male living in a zoo in the U.S. has not been able to travel to Montreal.
The otter isn’t the only animal to perk up since last month’s reopening, Paris said.
“The parrots were definitely curious when people returned to the rainforest. The same thing for the monkeys,” Paris said. “These animals live in captivity with people around them. I can’t say they were happy to see the public, but you can definitely tell that they were curious.”
COVID has thrown the whole Biodome for a loop.
After an extensive two-year renovation, during which most of the animals were moved to temporary locations, and some were sent to permanent new homes, the Biodome reopened at the end of August, but red zone restrictions forced it to close a little over a month later. The renovations allow visitors to spread out more throughout the indoor complex that replicates rainforest, subarctic and Canadian ecosystems.
“It was sad, because we worked for two years on the renovation,” Paris said. “It was sad to see the ecosystems and the animals without any people. Our mission is education.”
Paris said new restrictions put in place since the reopening in February limit the number of people to only 25 per half hour, which is half the capacity from last summer. The Biodome’s pre-COVID capacity was 400 per hour.
Because people spend an hour or more, however, there is still a possibility that groups of people will gather together. Paris said the staff are ready to move people along so that they spread out throughout the indoor space. Visitors have to reserve their spots ahead of time on the Biodome’s website .
“There is plenty of space in the Biodome for all those people,” he said.
Paris said people who are hesitant about crowds should avoid the busiest time of the day, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“If you come at 9 in the morning, there is no one inside the ecosystems; you can be alone,” he said. “The same is true at 3 or 4 p.m. and just like in nature, this is the best time to see the animals more active.”
Aside from the otters, the penguins are also missing a few playmates, with a pair of chinstrap penguins stuck in a zoo in New York.
The male and female lynx have been separated for the spring, because although it would be their time to breed, keepers don’t know what they would do with a litter of baby lynx, because sending them out to other zoos would be logistically complicated.
Because of COVID, when the young ones are old enough to exchange with other zoos, it’s not a good time to do this,” he said. “Next year, it will be a good time. We can’t keep six lynx in this habitat.”
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