Essential Workers Keep Zoos Running: a Zookeeper's Life Working with Cheetahs During Coronavirus Crisis

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, a Cincinnati zookeeper's life is still full of animal kingdom wonder.

Even with the coronavirus pandemic lurking in the background, zookeeper Andie Haugen still finds beauty and wonder among the animals. At the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Haugen works in the Cheetah Encounter, caring for and feeding the big cats as a way to help preserve the vulnerable species.

She led on visual journey of her work life, on a bright, sunny day resplendent with hundreds of blooming tulips dotting the closed facility.

"It is weird not having guests around. But all our animals are still out here, still getting all the great care they need," Haugen said. "It's just really weird walking around here on such beautiful days, with no guests around."

Weird is definitely the norm in these virus times, but guests or no, life goes on for the animals. And for cheetahs, that means they get to run, something they are gifted to do with great speed.

"This is the Cheetah Encounter and our running yard where I work," Haugen explained. "Usually during this time we are open and we are doing runs every day for people to come see the amazing speed of the cheetah.

"Unfortunately right now they cannot see it in person, so we've been doing some cool things here at the zoo to still engage with people " including home safaris so people can see the animals online.

The virus has wrought significant change for the people working at the zoo in southern Ohio. Seasonal and part-time workers were furloughed, "which was really hard for us to do. We are only down to essential, full-time zookeepers," Haugen said.

The zookeepers work in shifts of two, in different parts of the park, wearing protective gear "so that we never overlap with each other (and) in case any of us get sick, it doesn't wipe out our whole department," she said.

Staff that would normally be working in the front office are being pulled in and trained to "help us out with the work that we need to do every day, to make sure the animals are still getting all the great care that they need," she said.

Feeding is an important job, given that cheetahs eat a lot.

"They eat about three pounds of raw beef every single day. So with 10 cheetahs you can imagine that is a lot of food," Haugen said.

The zookeeper also stopped by to help feed Fiona the hippo, the animal sanctuary's most famous resident.

She is the first Nile hippo to be born at the Cincinnati Zoo in 75 years, and the first of the species to be scanned in the womb using ultrasound. Staff named the jug-eared baby Fiona because she reminded them of the "Shrek" heroine, and because the name means "fair."

The tiny hippopotamus was born premature in 2017, and photos and video of her adorable antics and remarkable survival made her an international sensation. A children's book followed. And she has her own video series on the zoo's website.

"We hear that at that you guys really like Fiona, so she came out to say hi," Haugen said, introducing the famous hippo as the 3-year-old chomped away on a meal of vegetables and fruit.

Fiona the hippo, contemplating her third birthday cake. - Cincinnati Zoo