The Zoo in Winter

Think of lions, tigers, and elephants. Are you picturing lions lolling about on vast grasslands, tigers slinking through jungles in search of prey, and elephants trumpeting and roaming at will?

Zoos try to match the natural habitat of each kind of animal as closely as possible, especially in the zoos’ outdoor areas. Normally we see the animals in these man-made “natural” settings when we visit a zoo during the hot summer months. But how do animals live in zoos in northern climates during the winter?

Some animals, such as Siberian tigers, actually enjoy snow. They frolic and play in it with great delight.

For zoo keepers, however, winter means a time of extra watchfulness to see that the severe cold doesn’t harm the animals in any way. Since most zoos in northern areas remain open year round, frostbite, colds, and the possibility of falls on the ice all pose potential hazards for the animals.

Most animals, especially those with fur, seem to adapt best to cold weather by getting used to it gradually. For that reason they are kept in their outdoor areas as much as possible during the fall when temperatures start dropping.

Zoo keepers must stay alert and move the animals indoors if sudden cold snaps or cold, wet days occur during the fall. Because of the wide temperature ranges, fall and spring actually pose more of a danger to the animals than midwinter does.

Severe cold, however, can result in frostbite for some creatures with large extremities. The Grevy’s zebra and the kudu, for example, have large ears that freeze easily. On really cold days they stay indoors.

If a zoo receives a new animal from a warm climate in the late fall, that animal remains indoors the first winter.

For the giraffe, snow and ice pose another problem. The world’s tallest creature is clumsy on snow and ice, and it falls frequently if permitted outside.

Elephants withstand cold fairly well and usually stay outdoors until the temperature dips into the forties (5°–10° C); but hippos must have warm water, so they stay in indoor enclosures with heated pools all winter.

The amount of food the animals get and their feeding schedules also change in winter. Camels, kudus, zebras, and other hoofed stock are given larger portions to help them keep their body temperatures up.

Meat eaters, such as lions, tigers, cheetahs, and jaguars are fed during the warmest part of the day in order to keep their food from freezing. In summer, on the other hand, they are fed during the coolest part of the day so that the food won’t spoil.

The exhibit most affected by winter, however, is the tropical bird building. During the summer, many of these birds live in outdoor cages. Since they cannot adapt to cold weather, at the slightest hint of a chill, zoo keepers move them indoors and keep them there. Security people constantly check the furnace system to make sure it stays on. If the heat should drop significantly for as little as two hours, it could mean a serious loss of some tropical birds.

Flu and the common cold pose the biggest dangers for the great apes. These primates can contract most of the diseases carried by people, so if zoo keepers have a cold, they avoid entering the primate cages. Visitors remain too far away from the primates to spread their germs to the animals.

The lesser pandas, although not bothered greatly by cold, need watching also, especially during snowstorms. These animals sometimes use the snowdrifts inside their outdoor areas to walk over the top of their enclosures.

In the reptile building, the winter schedule stays about the same as the one followed during summer. Because reptiles are cold-blooded, they must be kept in warm cages all year.

Preparing zoo buildings for winter requires the same kind of attention that a homeowner in a northern region gives to his home. Zoo keepers seal windows and caulk doors, trying to eliminate drafts that might reach the animals.

With about 90 percent of the exhibits open either indoors or outdoors to the public during the wintertime, zoo personnel must keep walkways cleared of snow and ice. You can see for yourself how the animals live during cold weather when you visit the zoo this winter.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney