Celebrating the birth of cute farm critters is a springtime tradition at the Minnesota Zoo that goes back years, but this year marks the first time the Farm Babies program is a virtual experience.
"This year, with social distancing and everything going on, the zoo is closed to the public but we still wanted to find a way to celebrate Farm Babies," zoo spokesman Zach Nugent said. "It's an event a lot of our guests look forward to, it's an event we at the zoo look forward to celebrating, and we wanted to find a way to still provide a resource to people who are at home and look for some cute animals."
The zoo launched its first virtual Farm Babies program earlier this month. The five-week event runs until May 17 with each week focusing on one specific group of newborn farm babies.
"We're starting out with the goat kids, the next weeks we'll start celebrating the lambs, piglets, calves and they we'll end with a surprise baby," Nugent said.
Different events and activities are planned five days each week, providing guests with opportunities to engage with the young animals, most of which will be less than a month old.
The week starts with Farm Baby Trivia on Facebook every Monday, followed by the baby's first story on Tuesday, which is a video of zookeepers reading a story to the baby animals. Cute photos and videos of the newborns are shared throughout the week, too. Nugent said the need to go virtual this year has brought some improvement to the program.
"We're really finding ways to provide education and entertainment opportunities to people at home at this time," Nugent said. "I think this has provided an opportunity for us to look ahead once the zoo reopens and how can continue to bring the zoo to individuals virtually who cannot access the zoo in person. There is going to be a lot of discussion and hopefully a lot of new programming and content available in the future."
Another new Farm Babies activity is the baby naming contest. Entries are taken on Wednesdays and announced Sundays, along with trivia answers.
"For instance, this week is goat kids so we have a variety of photos of different goat kids and videos of all the goat kids running around, but for the naming contest we're focusing on one goat kid and making it sort of a baby shower for that one specific animal," Nugent said. "It will all lead up to the Sunday of each week, we'll do a big reveal online where we show the chosen name of the farm baby and all the answers to the trivia."
Farm Babies isn't the only virtual activity the zoo is providing at this time, however. Since the zoo closed on March 14, staff has been working to put together educational activities and resources for homebound kids and adults to engage with.
"We view ourselves as Minnesota's zoo and we want to be a resource for individuals while they're at home during this time," Nugent said. "We've done this Farm Babies campaign but we've also worked to provide a lot of online learning resources."
The Minnesota Zoo website now features a section called "Learning Corner," filled with resources families and teachers can take advantage of during the shelter period.
"There are a lot of tools to foster nature play and ways to learn about animals and nature at home during this time," Nugent said. "There's also curriculum teachers can download while they transition to distance learning and create those lesson plans and look for different science activities to share with their students."
The zoo is also planning to add a special section about pollinators to the Farm Babies virtual program, along with other improvements at the weeks go by. Nugent said it's all part of an effort to bring the Minnesota Zoo to people's homes at this time.
"Farm Babies has a big cuteness factor but we've been looking at ways to incorporate education into it," Nugent said. "...Pollinators are a big element to farms, so there is going to be some different opportunities to learn about bees and butterflies and how they factor into our agricultural system."
Beyond giving the newborns the extra care and attention they need, zookeepers and vet staff are taking a closer look at the rest of the zoo's animals, which are lacking engagement with visitors.
"A lot of the animals are used to seeing guests," Nugent said. "Having that type of engagement provides a different type of stimuli and with that lacking our keepers have been looking to find ways to elevate their enrichment."
But the absence of human guests doesn't mean the zoo animals can't still have visitors. Zookeepers have been transporting animals to different parts of the zoo to "visit" other animals and interact with different settings.
"We have a parrot that we brought to our aquarium area to look at the sharks," Nugent said. "We have a a tamandua, which is an anteater, that we brought to look at the penguin exhibit. Our keepers have been really hard at work."
For more information on virtual Farm Babies program and other online resources, visit www.mnzoo.org.