By MADDY VITALEAmid the pandemic, visitors can’t explore the wonders of wildlife at the Cape May County Park and Zoo in Cape May Court House. Children can’t enjoy school field trips and marvel at the snow leopards, primates or bison.“We have 500 animals. It is a strange feeling to not have anyone here. Right now and really beginning next month is field trip season. We are normally used to the bustle and the chaos. We are anxious to get back to that someday,” said Associate Veterinarian Dr. Alex Ernst, who has worked at the zoo for 15 years.Instead, the zoo staff is bringing the adventures and lessons to homes with just a click on “Virtual Zoo School” at the zoo website www.cmczoo.com. Families get to virtually enjoy a daily “episode” viewing zookeepers and other staff feeding the animals and describing the special qualities of each type of animal.But, aside from the exciting experience, the Virtual Zoo School serves another purpose, explained Ernst in a phone interview Friday.“It helps make people remember we are here,” he said, adding that the zoo staff has seen a phenomenal response to the Zoo School.With the closure of the zoo, along with other public spaces throughout the county and the country, the staff has had to drastically change work schedules and make sure that the animals are getting their share of attention, since they are not seeing visitors at the zoo. Zoo animals have been receiving top care from the staffers during the facility’s closure for the coronavirus pandemic. Day 8 – Snow LeopardsWelcome to Zoo School Day 8 – Snow Leopards! We will be available between 11:30 – 12:00 to answer any questions! Don’t forget to show us how you high and far you can jump by sharing photos and videos using our hashtag #cmczooschool Don’t forget Zoo School will return Monday at 11:30 AM. Have a safe and healthy weekend!You can also watch all of our Zoo School Videos on our website: http://www.capemaycountynj.gov/1400/Virtual-Zoo-SchoolPosted by Cape May County Park/Zoo on Friday, March 27, 2020Cape May County Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, liaison to the park and zoo, said the staff has been doing a wonderful job.“Visiting the zoo is a bright spot for most of our visitors, and the staff and the animals are anxious to see them return,” Hayes said. “I want to just let those who have expressed concern know that the animals in the zoo are doing very well.”Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism, echoed Hayes’ sentiments.“The Park and Zoo staff are doing a great job as always in caring for the animals and the Parks crew is working hard to maintain the property,” Wieland said in an email. “That last storm kept them busy with clean up. They are a great team at the Parks and Zoo and the virtual classroom was all their idea and very successful.”The zoo is free to the public, but relies heavily on donations. During the time the zoo is closed, donations have slowed down, Wieland said.It is anticipated that donations could drop as much as $140,000 compared to the same time last year, according to Wieland.Virtual tours bring the lions directly to families via Facebook.For Ernst and his team charged with caring for the animals, their love and dedication to the animals are obvious.“We work in the zoo for conservation. We want to help conserve these animals. One of the other big reasons is to educate people,” Ernst said. “Right now, we can’t provide that in person. The zoo school is a way to still get our message out and maybe inspire kids from home as well as the adults.”There are two main components that the zoo employees keep in mind with their mission, he said.They are to maintain the top standard of care for their animals and do so while keeping the safety of their employees in mind during the coronavirus pandemic.“We are listening to our own health department, the CDC and federal government. We are trying to achieve a balance and maintain the zoo animals and staff,” Ernst assured.At all times the staff wears the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), he said.They split their 22 zookeepers into two shifts, a challenging feat for a small staff to begin with, Ernst acknowledged.Zookeeper Jen Berg cleans down an enclosure.But they did it so that should an employee test positive for COVID-19, that team would have to self-isolate, so the other team would have to take over both shifts during that time.Luckily, there are no COVID-19 cases, and it is just another way the zoo staff members are taking added precautions, Ernst emphasized.The hope is that the world will return to some form of normalcy, where people may go back to enjoying the zoo and other outside events.“We look forward to the day we can reopen and welcome the public back to the park and zoo. I am proud of the staff and the work they are doing with a reduced workforce, but not surprised,” Ernst said. “They are hardworking and so caring and passionate about the animals in their care, and they show it every day. It is also heartwarming to see the interest in the animals by our visitors.”Ernst and the staff remain hopeful that when restrictions are lifted and the coronavirus is not the threat it is currently, the zoo will be a favorite destination once again and maybe even more so.“No one knows the path forward. Whenever things start opening, we do anticipate the zoo will be a popular destination. It is wide open and outdoors,” Ernst pointed out. “It is easy in the zoo to social distance yourself from other visitors. We offer that advantage to people. The zoo will be a place where people can feel safe and enjoy a day.”Donations can be made online by going to www.cmczoo.com.Associate Veterinarian Dr. Alex Ernst and zookeeper Jen Berg feed two goats.