A pandemic tale: watching animals online can improve mental health.

Courtney Dunn
September 9, 2022

In a time when social gatherings were non-existent and mental health was at an all-time low, online communities created connections. These connections kept friendships alive and fostered new ones – sometimes in even the most unlikely places.

2020 was a rough year for all of us, and stress had hit an all-time high across society as we faced so many unknowns. Mental health came front and center as conversations about this topic popped up for many for the first time. Although we all experienced these challenges in many ways, there was one consistent factor; the internet.

The internet provided relief from the outside world as the pandemic hit. In a time when social gatherings were non-existent, online communities created connections. These connections kept friendships alive and fostered new ones – sometimes in even the most unlikely places.

Not only did Zoolife build a way to connect animal lovers with their zoos and each other, but also provided a mental health Sinéad, a Zoolife power user, told us that visiting the gorillas at the Toronto Zoo or watching them live on Zoolife boosts her mental wellness. During the pandemic, Zoolife allowed her to bond with other animal lovers, while watching animals safely from home. Even after reopening, Sinéad uses Zoolife to visit the Toronto Zoo virtually whenever she cannot go in person.

Sinéad taking a quick selfie with the Toronto Zoo gorilla troop.

A life-long love for gorillas

Sinéad, a Toronto-based gorilla fan, is one of the most familiar faces on Zoolife. When not at the zoo, she loves to be outside in nature. Sinéad, a very kind and caring person, is also passionate about service dog education, accessibility, and inclusion advocacy.

Known as CharliesPuppy on the platform, Sinéad and her service dog Foreman were regular visitors to the zoo prior to the pandemic closure. Few months after closure, Sinéad saw others posting photos from the gorilla habitat at the Toronto Zoo on Facebook. So she decided to check Zoolife out and immediately became a fan.

Sinéad’s passion for gorillas developed at a young age thanks to her mother. As Sinéad got older, her love for gorillas evolved to finding ways to care for them at the Toronto Zoo. Moreover, she learned how to participate in and support wildlife conservation efforts.

For as long as she can remember, the Toronto Zoo has been part of Sinéad’s life. “Some of my fondest childhood memories,” Sinéad shared “…are of my dad taking my brother and me for picnic dinners on evenings my mum worked late, as well as visiting the zoo with my cousins. We all lived in the neighborhood and had memberships!”

Sinéad and her cousin Siobhan visiting the Toronto Zoo on August 29th, 2000.

Creating new memories online

Those who have had these life-long connections to their local zoos felt the strains the pandemic created. Not only were they unable to financially support their local zoo, but also their mental health was impacted by losing the connection with the animals they are so passionate about.

For Sinéad, her favorite part about Zoolife is “the ability to see our gorilla troop on days I may not be feeling well physically and can’t visit them in person.” The pandemic has been extra isolating for those with pre-existing health conditions or disabilities. Virtual visits to the zoo have helped during this time. Beyond the pandemic-forced closures, virtual alternatives offered a way to stay connected with the local zoo when making trips away for the summer.

“One of my top memorable moments would have to be Charles’ big 50th birthday party!” Sinéad told us. “The Zoo has closed again this past January because of COVID but thanks to Zoolife, I was able to celebrate his big birthday virtually and capture some incredible moments featuring him and his family.” Another favorite experience she has had with Zoolife is when some fellow Zoolife members spotted Sinéad on the cameras and took photos of her posing with Foreman.

Chelseajohn, another Zoolife community member, captured Sinéad and Foreman enjoying a visit to the gorillas in person.

Watching the gorilla family online, anytime, strengthens the connection with the animals and encourages people to be more proactive about animal welfare. “I wish people knew how much can be learned by being a member,” Sinéad discussed. “Not just from the talks but, from just watching the animals and getting to know their unique personalities and habits and appreciating them.”

Sinéad taking selfies with Western lowland gorillas Nassir (left) and Charlie (right). Nassir and his brother Sadiki live in the bachelor troop at the Toronto Zoo while Charlie lives in the family troop.

Making a difference for wild gorillas

One thing we know for sure is – animal lovers are incredibly passionate about conservation. Sinéad’s love for visiting the gorilla troop extends beyond the Toronto Zoo and into the wild. She loves letting others know that there are simple ways to help gorillas conservation. “A very easy way people can help…”, she explains “is by donating [your] used cell phones to the Toronto Zoo’s Phone Apes Recycling Program!”. Almost all cell phones contain a mineral called coltan.

This mineral is used to create the element tantalum. Tantalum, used in a light weight metal powder form, is able to hold a very high electrical charge. This makes it a vital element in creating the capacitors that control electric flow inside miniature circuit boards. Tantalum capacitors are used in almost all cell phones, laptops as well as other electronics. By recycling your old phone, it is helping to reduce mining of Coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo where gorillas call home. The money raised from the recycled phones in the Phone Apes program also goes towards projects like Ape Action Africa where they are on the ground caring for orphaned, wounded and sick great apes in Africa.

Charlie, a Western lowland gorilla at the Toronto Zoo, enjoying a quick snack of leaves and twigs! For many zoo guests, visiting a zoo even virtually helps

Other ways to support gorillas, Sinéad shares, is by symbolically adopting a gorilla through the Toronto Zoo, being mindful of the products you buy that may affect the gorilla habitats, and simply learning “about these incredibly smart and gentle beings.”

When it comes to general advice, Sinéad says knowledge is power. “Never stop learning! Zoolife is a fantastic way to learn about gorillas as well as many other endangered species! If you know better, you do better.”

Want to help support the Toronto Zoo and learn about wildlife conservation from the comfort of your own home? Visit Zoolife today to support them through a Zoolife subscription!