Credit: Darrow Montgomery

When animal lovers debate whether cats or dogs make better pets, dog fans have been known to sling mud at cat people—accusing felines of being bored by their owners’ presence. There may be some truth to that, according to Craig Saffoe. He’s the curator of the Great Cats exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. While zookeepers say some animals are looking forward to a limited number of visitors returning on Friday after a four-month closure due to COVID-19, the big cats couldn’t care less.

“Cats don’t care about you one way or another,” Saffoe says. He’s been working with the National Zoo’s lions and tigers since 1994. “We all want the cats to love us, but cats are cats no matter what size. They’re indifferent to you.”

Saffoe has spent many years watching the big cats under his care roam their outdoor enclosures while groups of schoolchildren scream and roar. He says that the cats rarely react or turn their heads to acknowledge humans because they know they’re at the top of the food chain. “They don’t worry about us eating them or taking over their territory.” 

Sometimes visitors will ask Saffoe if the crowd noise annoys them. His answer will resonate with working parents who’ve tried to join Zoom meetings that weren’t scheduled around nap time: “We all have things in our life that make noise that makes others go, ‘How does that not annoy you?’ I don’t even recognize it’s there when my kids are screaming about stuff.” 

People badly want to think they’re engaging in back-and-forth banter with lions, but the roaring they hear is simply the cats communicating with each other. “We’re a very self-centered species,” Saffoe jokes. “Everything revolves around us.”

Now that we’ve established that homo sapiens are the me-me-me species, are there any animals that are just as excited to see us as we are to see them?

You bet, says Saffoe, who also curates the Kid’s Farm at the bottom of the zoo. “Maggie, oh my god, I think she was a dog in her former life,” Saffoe says, describing a black-and-white Holstein calf whose full name is Magnolia. “She wants to be stroked and scratched. She gets that from the keepers, but if she could get it 23 hours out of the day, I’m sure she’d take it. There’s a longing for visitors to come back.” 

All three cows tend to linger by the fences so visitors can show them some love. So do the donkeys. “They’ll hover by the fences looking for someone to get an itch they can’t reach,” Saffoe says. “They get lots of attention from the keepers, but there’s definitely something missing.” 

The good news is the Kid’s Farm animals will be able to see and smell people starting Friday, but they’ll have to wait longer to get petted again. “There are huge question marks around this virus,” Saffoe explains. “We have to worry about an asymptomatic carrier passing it onto cattle or donkeys, so we backed them off the fences to keep them socially distanced. Maggie, Willow, and Rose won’t be able to interact until we understand the virus.” 

Like sports or concerts or lavish meals, bovine affection is a reward for a society that has finally gotten its act together. “Hopefully people will understand,” Saffoe says. “It’ll make the visitors and the farm animals appreciate it more when we can take those barriers away safely.”

Climb the hill from the Kid’s Farm to the Great Ape House where a 46-year-old orangutan named Lucy is also eagerly awaiting fresh faces, according to Becky Malinsky. The assistant curator of primates has worked at the National Zoo for 14 year and volunteered for five years before that.

“I would bet money that Lucy will have the strongest reaction to having visitors back,” Malinsky predicts. “We have a lot of regular visitors that bring things for Lucy—not to give to her, but to show her through the glass.” Sometimes people will flip through pop-up children’s books. Others will empty the contents of their purses or backpacks in a game of show and tell. “She’ll sit there totally intrigued by it.” 

While it’s hard for Malinsky to definitively say whether primates “missed” seeing people other than zoo staff over the past four months, she acknowledges they’re highly intelligent and crave the stimulation strangers bring. “The primates watch people just as much as people watch the animals, so there’s an equal amount of intrigue on both sides,” she says. “Not having that has absolutely made a difference in their lives.” 

She’s watched gorillas toy with tiny humans in the past: “Sometimes our male gorillas, in my opinion, will purposefully bang on the glass to get kids to run and scream because it’s exciting to see that.” 

The animals might experience a bit of shock when people surround their habitats once again, but Malinsky offers a reminder that the National Zoo has had to close for stretches of time in the past. The most recent time was the government shutdown in January 2019. “We’ve had some practice runs with this,” she says. “But the pure length of time of this event has been more significant because of its duration.” 

Malinsky says limiting the number of people who can come through the gate will help ease the animals back into the swing of things. The National Zoo is only allowing 5,000 visitors per day. They must reserve free timed entry passes in advance. Everyone six and older must wear a mask and follow social distancing protocols spelled out on zoo grounds. Not every exhibit is open, especially not the ones that are indoors, like the Giant Panda House, Small Mammal House, Reptile Discovery Center, and Amazonia. 

There are animals that will be a little freaked out, even with the reduced foot traffic. “Prairie dogs are acutely aware that no visitors have been around,” Saffoe says. “We can see them from a distance up and out of their holes scurrying around the yard with no cares. But whenever someone passes the enclosure, they dive in.” 

If the big cats know they’re predators, prairie dogs know they’re prey. “I expect it’s going to take them a while to get used to seeing people routinely,” Saffoe continues. “They’ll have a negative reaction and will take some time to come back around.” Fortunately, Saffoe says, it shouldn’t be too stressful. “They’re a species we don’t have to force to be out on exhibit. We don’t close any doors behind them. They always have the option to go underground.” 

Curators like Saffoe and Malinsky miss people too. “You think about a zookeeper’s life—we take care of animals,” Saffoe says. “We say to people, ‘We’re animal people, we’re not people people.’ But then when you take away the visitors for this long, I find myself missing them. You never appreciate the interactions you have and the things you take for granted until you don’t have them anymore. Who do we talk to? Who do we educate about our animals?”