Denver Zoo Asks City, State for Permission to Reopen

The Denver Zoo elephants wonder where everybody's gone.
The Denver Zoo elephants wonder where everybody's gone. Ken Hamblin
"Where the hell is everybody?"

The elephants at the Denver Zoo appear to be wondering just that. Also an emu named Ralph, an incurable ham with nobody to entertain. The kangaroos don't seem to care about the missing visitors, though, and the lions never gave a fig. 


Even Denver Zoo President and CEO Bert Vescolani and his staff are pacing the cage, waiting for everybody to return from the COVID-19 shutdown.

“It’s tough. I think for me, it’s just so quiet,” Vescolani says. “I thrive on people’s excitement, and their having fun and a lot of enthusiasm and the excitement of seeing animals and being at the zoo. That is all gone. That’s been tough for all of us, including the animals who seem to be wondering where everyone is.”

And so, in an effort to get back to serving, educating and entertaining the public, alleviating Ralph's confusion and bringing much-needed revenue back to the institution, the Denver Zoo has been planning its reopening strategy, and has even applied for a variance from the City of Denver and the State of Colorado to let guests back in again.

While there is nothing in writing yet, Vescolani says that city officials have signaled that the Denver Zoo will be able to reopen soon as the state gives the okay to its proposed guidelines.

While Vescolani was hoping that he’d be able to welcome back visitors by Memorial Day weekend — as the Denver Botanic Gardens will be — that’s looking unlikely. His best guess is that the Denver Zoo might be open the last weekend in May or the first weekend in June.

The lion's don't care that the Zoo has been shut down. - BRANDON MARSHALL
The lion's don't care that the Zoo has been shut down.
Brandon Marshall
When visitors finally do return, it's going to be a different experience...perhaps even a better one, as Vescolani tells it.

There will be a cap on how many people can come in — about half of what the Denver Zoo used to hold on a busy day. Foot traffic will be allowed to flow in just one direction, and barriers will be in place to keep people away from the COVID-19-vulnerable animals. Everyone over two will be required to wear masks, and every day, staff will receive health checks.

Still, the 88-acre campus offers plenty of room for visitors to spread out at an appropriate distance. And while summer camps and other outdoor programming have been canceled, there will still be plenty of fun...and soap.

"We’ve just ramped up hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations and supplemental restrooms and all of that to make our experience safe for our guests, but also our staff and, of course, the animals," says Vescolani. "The good news is we are really, really close to having that finalized. In the next day or so, we will have the signage in place, the directional flow in place, and all the elements."

The only thing missing is...the people. 
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris