Like most of the Midwest, I’m cozied up to the fireplace and watching blizzard coverage on television. I got to stay home from work today because I’m considered a “non-essential” employee. Somehow, in these weather conditions, that title doesn’t bother me at all.
Pity the poor zookeepers and ground crews who are working to shovel their way to the animal exhibits today. You may be wondering just how the zoo animals survive such conditions. Well, it so happens that I recently wrote an article on that subject for the ZooSounds Winter issue…
Baby, It’s Cold Outside!
Tundra Geese are well suited to cold climates. Photo by Amy Dee Stephens
Oh, the weather outside is frightful. What keeps the animals warm and delightful?
Well, far too many practical and creative ideas to simply put in one verse of a song. Many of the zoo’s two-thousand animals do need some sort of modification to survive Oklahoma’s volatile weather. But first, let’s address the number one winter-weather question that zoo employees hear: “When do you close down for the winter?”
We don’t! (Except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day). Of course, if you’re one of those loyal members who bundles up to visit your favorite animal on a chilly December morning, then you know our zoo secret—that you will encounter a surprising amount of animal activity, an uninterrupted view, short restroom lines, and cheerful greetings from the staff, who are shocked to see other humans outside.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
True, some zoos in the northern U.S. do close for the winter because of extreme conditions. Oklahoma, however, has enough nice days to attract visitors and many of the animals can tolerate our “mild” climate and occasional snow. Also, careful planning has gone into designing most exhibits with indoor/outdoor alternatives that suit both people and animals.
“Most species have high and low temperature parameters that we use as a tool to determine whether an animal will go out on exhibit or stay inside,” said Laura Bottaro, Curator of Mammals. “Keepers really keep an eye on the weather forecast, and in emergency situations, we have back-up generators on standby.”
Mammals are the most tolerant of cold weather. It’s no surprise that snow leopards are the cat least bothered by low temperatures, although all the cat species have “hot rocks” in their exhibits.
Two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree
In or out of a pear tree, birds are the most susceptible to freezing weather. With so many tropical species in the collection, keepers must move some of them indoors for the whole season. An entire building, called Overwintering, houses the birds. It is off-exhibit to the public, but you can imagine what a noisy and raucous place it is right now!
Fortunately, the bird quarters in the new Children’s Zoo are fully equipped to handle the winter. The macaws, flamingos, and lorikeets have indoor barns attached to their exhibits.
“Oklahoma Trails also has a bird-holding area between the aviary and the nocturnal barn,” said Darcy Henthorn, Curator of Birds and Children’s Zoo.
The reptile and amphibian keepers have an entirely different approach to the winter. The nearly-ninety-year-old Herpetarium is built of granite stone, and each wall experiences cold, wet and dry periods.
“When we get new animals, ‘Which wall?’ is always the first question, not ‘Which aquarium?’” said Joe Branham. “Some animals can spend their whole life on one side of the building, and others have to be switched during different months.”
Varied temperatures and controlled light cycles are actually used to induce hibernation, which is important to many of the reptiles’ life cycle. Some species will spend three months in a large walk-in refrigerator called the Hibernaculum.
It’s a regular winter wonderland!
“The public usually doesn’t know about how we create these micro-environments, but this is what herpers do,” said Branham.
We’re snuggled up together
Speaking of hibernation, what about the bears? When do they snuggle down for the winter?
According to keeper Jonathan Redding, the bears eat less in the winter months, and they grow thicker coats, but Oklahoma is too warm for them to need to hibernate.
“They don’t hibernate, but they are hardwired to dig a den anyway—and that’s a natural behavior we encourage,” Redding said.
Each fall, the grizzly bears push aside dirt and rock until they have dug an underground cave large enough for both of them. Although it is in the same place every year, in the center of the yard, the den is particularly visible this year.
“Underneath is about an 8-ft by 10-ft circular room,” said Redding. “Eventually it will collapse. In the spring, I’ll use excavator equipment to fill it back in so they can dig a new one next year.”
See why it’s so interesting to come to the zoo in the winter? From bird barns to bear dens, interesting things are going on. Bundle up and enjoy the front row view. After all…
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Here is the PDF version of this story, as well as two other articles I wrote for this ZooSounds issue: Baby It’s Cold Outside; How Zoo Animals Survive; Butterfly Conservation; Zoo Masterplan 2011
Baby, I’ts Cold Outside