Zoo staff prepare animals for winter weather
By SCOTT AUST
When the temperature dips below freezing for the first time each fall, many people start to think about winterizing their homes or cars.
But Lee Richardson Zoo starts preparing its 250 to 300 animals for cold weather starting in September, when the temperature is usually still quite warm.
Zoo Director Kathy Sexson said the zoo starts early because occasionally, the first freeze can come in October, and the facility needs to be prepared. Heaters that have been off all summer are checked, vents are closed, windows and doors are checked for drafts.
"We also have a lot of animals that are winter hardy, that prefer winter. Others are given a choice. If it's really bad weather — snow and ice — they may go out for a little bit for fresh air. But many animals are given a choice based on current conditions," Sexson said.
Tropical birds are moved from the aviary to a climate controlled holding area on the zoo grounds. Zoo workers check the aerators that prevent ice from forming in pools, and hot boxes — black wooden boxes with heat lamps — are set up in the aviary for non-tropical birds to use on days they go outside.
Sexson said the zoo is required to provide barns and shelter for every animal, but some prefer to be outside even when it's cold. For those animals, the zoo puts straw bales out into yards to provide some added protection, especially from wind.
"It just gives an added sense of letting them be where they want to be, but not letting them freeze to death," she said.
For example, Sexson said rheas, a type of South American flightless bird, don't experience a lot of snow in their native habitat, but they much prefer being out in the yard. She said occasionally after a snowstorm, the birds will be in the grass, covered with snow but perfectly insulated by feathers. But if they do get cold, the birds can easily go inside.
Other animals are more fragile, she said.
"Giraffes, elephants, tropical birds we'll need to move or provide easy access in and out of their barn as weather allows," she said. "But with the birds in the aviary, we have to physically catch them and move them into a winter holding area, where they're safe regardless of what the weather does."
Giraffes and elephants sometimes do go outside over the winter, but there are specific criteria that must be met before it is allowed. Sexson said the criteria involve temperature, windchill and the type of precipitation.
"If it's cold and windy and raining, they can't go out. If it's cold and windy and sunny, they can maybe go out for an hour. It just depends," she said. "But if it's icy, the giraffes and elephants don't go out because of the chance of slipping and falling."
Before their new exhibit was completed this year, the zoo's tortoises had to be physically carried to an upper loft in the giraffe barn and only occasionally were taken out during the winter. But the new enclosure is heated and has an easy access to an open area where the turtles can go out when the weather is good.
But a number of animals are "winter hardy," Sexson said. They include animals from Mongolia or Asia whose natural climate is cooler, such as red pandas, snow leopards, Amur leopards and bactrian camels, as well as alpacas and most North American animals like bison, elk and otter.
"Bison are so hardy that when it's snowing out, they stand out there and lose virtually no body heat through their fur," she said. "Snow will build up on their backs and not melt because they don't lose body heat. The elk are probably more inclined to seek a windbreak in the yard, or they may go in the barn. That's the main thing is to give them the option."
Sara Niemczyk, animal keeper for almost five years, said preparing the big cats for winter normally involves providing heaters. Hoof stock needs more bedding and making sure there is a place to escape the wind if they go outside.
"Like with the camels, they're cold hardy, but they've still got to get out of the elements," she said.
The African lions love being outside when it's cold, even though they're warm weather cats, Niemczyk said.
Niemczyk said the lions always have access to the barn but seem to prefer the fresh air, even if it's snowing.
"They actually really like it when it snows. They like to come out and play in it. It's gotta be awful out for the cats not to want to be out," she said.
For keepers, preparing for winter is a little more challenging than preparing for summer, Niemczyk said, because sometimes the winter weather can change so suddenly in Kansas.
"We'll get a cold front that suddenly moves through, and everybody's just rushing to get heaters out, get heat lamps up for birds, bring birds in, bed down barns, lots of little things like covering up air vents and doors, anything you can do to seal up a barn," she said. "We can't risk their health and safety."
Sexson said the zoo staff always watches the weather forecast to be prepared. When snow is on the ground, the keepers ensure there are clear paths through the snow to food, water and shelter, and they also make sure drinking water isn't frozen.
"It's almost harder on the keepers because the keepers have to go out and work in it, whereas the animals can just bed down and do what's natural," she said. "The keepers would probably like to bed down, too, but they can't. They have to go out and make sure the animals are OK."