Editor’s Note: Covid-19 has fundamentally changed how we live and work — in ways big and small. “Redefining Normal” captures how that transformation is playing out across North America, from its metropolises to its rural hamlets and all the towns in between.
“Coming soon! Take a drive on the wild side! Tour around the Zoo from the comfort of your car for a 45-minute safari adventure,” officials at Canada’s largest wildlife park urged me via tweet.
As Ontario’s Covid-19 lockdown eased, the zoo was luring people back with its own version of physical distancing — bring your own car (also referred to as BYOC on its website), a drive-through one-hour “scenic safari” along normally private roads to learn about some of the zoo’s more than 5,000 animals.
Having been cooped up for three months, I was more than ready to break the mundane cycle of: Sleep, Work, Eat, Read/Watch TV, Repeat. Eagerly I started planning my trip: securing tickets for a tour in a week’s time, downloading the zoo’s accompanying podcast and packing up drinks and snacks.
It didn’t take long for the bubble to burst.
On a normal summer day, the Toronto Zoo would be filled with tourists and locals wandering happily along more than six miles of walking trails packed with animals. Today, a long stream of cars was wending its way, excruciatingly slowly, through a small portion of the actual zoo. People were pressed against their windows, snapping pictures via mobile phones in the hopes of finding cheetahs, zebras, rhinos and — above all else — the feeling of an actual vacation. Having not set foot on a plane all year, I too dreamed of southeast Asian rainforests, African savannas, and thick jungles in India as the sun scorched through my windshield.
The reality was more prosaic: cars grinding to a halt to take pictures of animals practicing their own version of social distancing by taking shelter from the sun. I was constantly moving around in my seatbelt-confined space to find a good angle and craning my neck, in vain, to spot whichever animal the podcast zookeeper had mentioned five or even 10 minutes ago.
And then it struck me. There I was, trapped in a car looking at animals who were also behind fences and glass walls. What I thought would be an escape from my Covid-19 life was only magnifying the new normal.
After an hour of playing and pausing through the 23-minute “Scenic Safari Audio Tour” podcast, I heard Toronto Zoo Chief Executive Dolf Dejong’s parting keepsake in the form of a pandemic-crafted farewell. “Stay safe, stay healthy — and we hope you’ve enjoyed your adventure today at your Toronto Zoo.”
I was ready to head back home, get out of my confined space and walk right back into my socially distanced habitat.
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