On Friday afternoon, social media was abuzz — not because of coronavirus, not because of the economic stimulus package.
He goes by the name of Twiga.
And he might just be the cutest 6-foot, 125-pound newborn the area has ever seen.
Amid the worldwide shutdown due to COVID-19, the Santa Barbara Zoo’s newest Masai giraffe was quietly born in the herd’s barn.
Video from the zoo quickly circulated, with Twiga making quite the entrance, dropping from multiple feet in the air, with his mother, Adia, quickly tending to him.
It was an intimate moment brought to the world as an educational piece, as well as a way for the zoo to stay connected to the community during a time when no one really knows when the gates at 500 Ninos Dr. will open again.
“Social media is part of all of us, and it carries a function to remind people that we are here, and that the animals continue to be well cared for,” said Richard Block, the zoo’s CEO. “It’s the same as when we are open to the public.”
Mr. Block and his staff are getting used to a new normal, one that doesn’t see hundreds of thousands of people flock to the zoo to visit their favorite critters.
The reality is that the zoo is reliant upon that foot traffic, as it accounts for 97% of their operating budget.
“If you take out 97%, and we are running on fumes and reserves,” Mr. Block said.
Much like many other local businesses, the zoo has had to make significant cutbacks in order to adjust to the loss in revenue, laying off most of its part-time staff and a handful of full-time employees.
“Laying these people off was not a reflection of their value to the zoo,” Mr. Block said. “For us, everyone on the team has been a contributor to the success of the zoo. This was a situation where we had to support the critical elements to keep us going. Many people are taking on new responsibilities to help us get through.”
The zoo closure comes after two phenomenal months for revenue totaling $1.7 million, beating internal projections.
Through March, the zoo had seen 74,000 guests. It had projected 176,000 guests through May, which will leave them at least 100,000 off that goal. With that projection, the expectation was to see $5.6 million in revenue, which will leave the zoo nearly $4 million behind.
“We are fortunate to have some reserves, and we are running on them now,” Mr. Block said. “We are prioritizing taking care of the animals and keeping things in condition that when the opportunity to reopen is there, we can do it quickly.”
In the interim, the challenge has been to keep the community connected with the abundance of animals.
Thankfully, Monty the penguin has some experience keeping people entertained — as he has done TV spots for Montecito Bank and Trust.
And with the zoo’s grounds vacant of inquisitive visitors, it has allowed Monty to roam the grounds to introduce himself to a plethora of other animals.
Monty has checked out the tortoises’ real estate, had a staring contest with the meerkats, got some long looks from Michael the giraffe and caught Bangori and Nzinga, a pair of gorillas, off guard when he waddled into their observation area.
It’s all part of a social-media driven campaign that they are calling, “Zoo to You” — and it is seemingly working, with engagement on their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages growing by the day.
“What we do here is build connections between people and wildlife,” Mr. Block said. “We don’t want the trip to the zoo to be the end of the journey, but the beginning of a longer adventure. We want people to get out and enjoy the nature around us. And, beyond that, we want them to become engaged. To help and make a difference.”
And Mr. Block is the first to tip his hat to the employees for embracing this goal, even in uncertain times.
“It’s amazing to me, I’m so impressed the lengths that they are going to for the animals and to keep everyone safe.”