The northwest Indiana native had crossed the border on March 5 shortly before COVID-19 guidelines began to take effect.
“Pretty much everything was shut down (when I started on March 17). So it’s been a really, really interesting time for me. Moving to a new city, moving to a new country and starting a brand new job,” Mitchell said on Wednesday.
“When people found out that I’ve been locked in my apartment, I’ve gotten some gift baskets… and just the people around my neighbourhood have all been super welcoming and so friendly, even during this shutdown and everything that was going on, I still felt amazingly welcomed in this community.”
During the COVID-19 shutdown, there were still anywhere from 160 to 200 animals to take care of, depending on births and movement with other zoos.
“We just went with all those [virus] precautions and obviously our day-to-day routines really didn’t change much. Our animals need food, water, proper care, enrichment, our training and conditioning and all of that every day… we stayed really, really busy,” Mitchell said.
“We had quite a number of births happen. We had four mouflon sheep, two bighorn sheep, two pronghorn and a couple… caribou as well.”
The zoo manager said he thinks the biggest downside of the shutdown won’t be the drop in attendance.
“The only thing that really hurt us is that we weren’t able to get our education and our conservation message and to really inspire and continue to reach out to the families in Saskatchewan and show them the amazing animals in life around them,” Mitchell said.
“My vision of Saskatoon Forestry Park and Zoo is for us to become a leader in the province in conservation and animal education… and to really look and focus on some key local and international conservation projects that we can become a really good player in.”
The gates to the Saskatoon zoo were wide open as of Wednesday in full compliance with the guidelines and restrictions under the provincial government’s Re-Open Saskatchewan plan.
“Our crowd has been decent for a cloudy, kind of chilly, overcast, potentially rainy (Wednesday). People are really excited to get back into the zoo and see the animals. We have a one-way path set up with some extra cleaning in our bathrooms and whatnot, following all the regulations and things are going great,” Mitchell said.
“We’re so happy to have people back and to being able to move forward on that.”
For the most part, Mitchell said the animals’ behaviour didn’t change much through the shutdown.
“I do believe some of them have missed at least seeing people and interacting and doing that a little bit… Our dingoes, when our first guests came in, they ran right up to the glass (Wednesday) morning,” he said.
“We’re excited to see some people walking through the zoo… whereas the elk and the sheep, they just continue to eat and sleep and do their job the way they’re supposed to do.”
After nearly three decades in the field, Mitchell admits his favourite animal can’t be viewed at the Saskatoon zoo.
“When I started my career… (I) did a lot of breeding and developing techniques to raise baby seahorses. So seahorses always have a deep, ingrained place in my heart,” Mitchell said.
“I really became a big fan of the bears so now that I’m here with Mistaya and Koda, our grizzly bears, I really enjoy watching them and seeing how they’re doing.”
The Saskatoon zoo is now open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with admission limited to 300 guests per hour session.
It is the only zoo in the province accredited by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA).
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The Saskatoon Forestry Farm and Zoo’s new manager Jeff Mitchell
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