Whipsnade Zoo: What is a day at the zoo like with social distancing?

PUBLISHED: 12:00 26 July 2020 | UPDATED: 13:37 26 July 2020

Whipsnade Zoo, 2020. Picture: Amy Thorburn

Whipsnade Zoo, 2020. Picture: Amy Thorburn


Annual trips to Whipsnade Zoo since my childhood have often provided a respite from reality. A day to escape the daily grind of normality and admire what nature has to offer.

Whipsnade Zoo, 2020. Picture: Amy ThorburnWhipsnade Zoo, 2020. Picture: Amy Thorburn

A post-lockdown visit was inevitable: the economic struggle of zoos during the pandemic was difficult to bear and it felt the least I could do for the place that enabled so many of my fondest memories.

A full day out can still be daunting - torn between safety concerns and wanting to escape the banality of lockdown.

Whipsnade is the perfect location to test the waters after lockdown as the largest zoo in the country, the vast majority of which is outside and remarkably open compared with other zoos in the UK. It was also mid-week, and usually that would mean only a handful of other visitors around the park.

This was the first unexpected surprise. The sheer number of visitors especially with the new pre-booking measures to restrict the amount of guests. It felt over-populated in the climate that we have become accustomed to, awkwardly shuffling past over zoo-goers and trying to navigate paths with some people trying to socially distance and others completely unbothered by brushing shoulders with total strangers. It felt almost taboo when someone entered your two metre bubble to catch a glimpse of a rhino.

Whipsnade Zoo. Picture: Amy ThorburnWhipsnade Zoo. Picture: Amy Thorburn

Whipsnade does feel safe and is probably one of the least risky places to spend a day out. The only point of contact you would need to have is with the toilet facilities, which are one household in, one household out and they had hand sanitizer located outside.

In theory, the zoo works very well and very safely, Whipsnade has done everything they can to pandemic-proof their facilities. In practice, it doesn’t entirely work.

Animal care providers or those serving coffee cannot be expected to police social distancing, it’s up to the guests on the day to adhere to the government guidelines and basic human decency to try and avoid others.

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For the most part, that was done very well, people sat on the grass away from one another, most people tried to move out the way when walking on the same path, but when it comes to viewing the animals social distancing went out the door.

The crux of the issue is that although Whipsnade boasts 600 acres of land, that doesn’t mean each person will be equally spread out at two metre intervals at all times throughout the day.

That land is taken up by enclosures, indoor areas, inaccessible areas, roads, paths, buildings, a train line and a drive through safari. Only a fraction of the land constitutes area where you can view the animals, and around the enclosures there are hotspots to view them.

People will congregate there, because they have paid to see the animals. And when it came to choosing between seeing the tigers, or the elephants, or the lions, people chose getting a good view of the animal over social distancing.

Whipsnade Zoo. Picture: Amy ThorburnWhipsnade Zoo. Picture: Amy Thorburn

At times it felt cramped, the zoo was fairly busy and full of children who obviously aren’t prioritising staying away from others. The queue to enter the lions viewing area was heaving, the area around the tiger exhibit had a constant flow of people coming and going which made it difficult to even walk past without being close to another group.

The zoo has done what they can to restrict contact with other guests but some people are more interested in seeing the animals or relaxing for a day to ensure they stay apart from others.

Entertainment wise it was lacking. No animal talks and importantly for parents, no play area. One of the best parts of the zoo is the talks, learning about the animal’s personalities (their very relatable obsession with food) adds another level of personalisation and brings the zoo to life.

For the most part it was a great reprise away from the lockdown and a great breath of fresh air. The only issue was the aversion of some to stand on the marked out paw prints.

Whipsnade Zoo. Picture: Amy ThorburnWhipsnade Zoo. Picture: Amy Thorburn

Whipsnade Zoo is struggling after experiencing massive revenue losses due to the COVID-19 restrictions. It costs the zoo £500,000 a year to care for its herd of Asian elephants, with the coronavirus crisis costing the zoo around £2.3 million per month.
Before the zoo was reopened, key staff were still needed to care for the animals, with 280 staff members furloughed. In May, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) said the zoo needed £25 million to stay afloat. To donate go to https://donate.zsl.org/donations/

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