As the sun shriveled to a bright eyelash in the sky, it felt as if all 6,750 people at the Nashville Zoo were cresting the first hill of a roller coaster together.
The collective anticipation and exhilaration built into a palpable energy as the light flattened, and visitors gathered around Flamingo Lagoon began to shout excitedly.
Then, a collective roar, accompanied the descent — into darkness, that is.
The temperature dropped noticeably from a sweltering 93 degrees. Whether it was the cooler air or awe-inspired goosebumps, many spectators reported a simultaneous shiver.
While the flamingos’ reaction paled in comparison to the humans’, there was some noticeably odd behavior. As the sky darkened, the birds left the water and huddled on one side of their exhibit. Then, as sunlight returned, they pranced back into the water flapping their wings animatedly, just as they do in the morning, a zookeeper explained.
Reports from all corners of the zoo began to circulate as visitors dispersed following totality and zookeepers reported back to the administration building. The gazelles reportedly “went nuts.” Siamang apes climbed to the tallest branches of their trees and then grasped even higher with their arms. A female clouded leopard stared at the crowd standing transfixed on nearby pathway when it usually would be napping in a tree. A komodo dragon stood up and looked “freaked out.” Giraffes bolted. Macaws and many other bird species reacted noisily and attempted to go inside to nest and feed. Bats briefly filled the sky and insects became noticeably louder
In short, there was no lack of the eclipse-related animal behaviors that the zoo was encouraging visitors to record and share for a crowdsourced research project. But there also is one major hurdle to drawing any conclusions from the data being collected: the inability to control for whether the animals were reacting to the eclipse, or reacting to the humans’ reaction to the eclipse.
“That is one thing we weren’t expecting,” said bird supervisor Shelley Norris. “The big cheer of thousands of people.”
Rhino keeper Amelia Davis and giraffe keeper Jenna Wolczyk reported similar experiences with their animals. The rhinos seemed content to continue enjoying their daily afternoon nap until “5,000 people screamed at the same time,” Davis said, which sent them running toward their barn.
“The rhinos don’t like loud noises like that, especially all of a sudden,” Davis said.
Wolczyk said the giraffes also were content until they heard the crowd’s reaction.
“That spooked the giraffes, and they all took off running, which is quite unusual for our 12-year-old male (Congo),” Wolczyk said of the moment of “collective gasping” when totality hit. “I don’t know whether to call it an excited roar or joyous sigh. I’m getting goosebumps again.”
Despite the combination of human commotion and midday darkness, some animals didn’t react at all. A panda continued to sleep, and nesting turtles couldn’t have cared less.
“There was only one goat who seemed to be bothered by it,” said zookeeper Ben Pugh.
“But he’s also afraid of thunderstorms and airplanes,” zookeeper Megan Baker replied. “We just hugged him through it.”
Several kangaroos also had a negative reaction, but zookeeper Nate Morris felt it was mostly due to the “antisocial” creatures reacting to the awe-struck people packing the their walkthrough exhibit. It didn’t help that one zoo patron reportedly had to be removed from restricted areas multiple times because he “just wanted to touch” the marsupials. At about 2:45 p.m., zoo receptionist Kathy Daniel radioed all zoo staff to be on the lookout for the man, described as being mid-40s in a gray shirt with the sleeves cut off and khaki shorts.