We had a definite taste of winter last week, and while I don't particularly enjoy single-digit temperatures and icy roads, I do love the change of seasons and a beautiful snowfall. The frigid temps are finally giving way to more red in the thermometer, and I'm not complaining. Contrary to what you might expect, the zoo is surprisingly busy in winter. We may not have a lot of visitors when the mercury plunges, but plans, projects and animal care keep us incredibly busy. Here's a quick look at some of the things we are working on for the upcoming year.

If you haven't been down to see our new takin yet, they are patiently waiting to greet you in Wild Asia, unfazed by the cold weather. Resembling a cross between a wildebeest and a sheep on steroids, takin are covered in thick, silvery-blonde fur that lured Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the mythical Golden Fleece. The red panda cubs and otter pups are growing up, but are still fun to watch when you can catch them not napping. Three new pronghorn joined our herd after being hand-reared by staff last summer, and a new bison cow and calf arrived from the Sand Sage Bison Range in December. Our cougar cubs are growing quickly, and while not on display yet, they will debut before you know it. The two orphaned females, Bailey and Mika, were found motherless in Oregon and California respectively, and soon will meet our resident clown Payton in his exhibit at Cat Canyon. Payton already puts on quite a show when provided with enrichment by his keepers (pumpkins, balls, fish in his pond and other fun diversions), but I am confident that when he meets his new roomies, life is sure to get even more interesting.

Staff also has been working on plans to expand the yard for elephants, Missy and Kimba, taking over some of the acreage to the south of their yard where we now display cranes and addax. The construction documents have taken longer than anticipated, as we try to get everything just right on paper first. We hope to put the project out for bid this spring and begin construction as soon as possible. The project includes a new yard twice the size of the current one, effectively tripling the space our large ladies have to roam. It will be surrounded by a more viewer-friendly fence made of steel posts and cable. Plans also call for a shade structure and a shallow pool with zero entry for easy pachyderm access.

Already under construction, but delayed slightly by weather, is a new automatic gate at our Fifth Street exit. You may recall this gate is being added to ensure that we comply with federal regulations to have all gates within our perimeter security fence either closed or attended if open. As hiring additional staff for this gate was not an option, the automatic gate will comply with regulations while still enabling us to permit the unique drive-through feature of our zoo. The gate will open as it detects an approaching vehicle.

It will increase security, prevent roaming dogs from entering the zoo and keep our animals (in the unlikely event they escape their enclosure) inside the zoo. We always plan for the unexpected! Because of the smaller size and automatic features of the gate, pedestrians now will enter and exit through the main zoo entrance at the Arches, near the museum and Safari Shoppe.

You may remember that the changes we implemented to comply with USDA gate regulations included slight adjustments in operational hours at our vehicle admission gate, to enable us to staff it when open. During winter zoo hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. November to March, vehicles may now enter between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The 4 p.m. closing time for the vehicle entrance gives guests a full hour to enjoy the facility after entering. During summer hours, vehicles are admitted from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with pedestrian gates open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Because these changes involved the elimination of free vehicle admission from December through February, we recently sought and received approval from the City Commission to begin offering Wild Wednesdays featuring free vehicle admission. These free Wednesdays will take place weekly during winter hours, and once per month on the first Wednesday of each month from April to October. We will rely on trained volunteers to attend the gate on these free days, so this visitor perk will begin as soon as we can schedule and train these individuals.

In addition to the fun rides FOLRZ has been implementing the last two years, guests will be happy to know that our Safari Cycles and Richardson Railroad will be joined by a new option this year, a 14-passenger Eco-star Shuttle. Delivered just this week, the open air shuttle will provide transportation around the zoo during the warmer months. Rides will be free for members, and non-members can ride for a nominal fee. Look for the Safari Shoppe to officially reopen for the season on March 1 with new merchandise and taste-tempting treats, including Dippin' Dots ice cream!

Our major events for the year are set, so be sure to get them on your calendar. Blues at the Zoo will rock the west green of the zoo on Saturday, May 10. Also this spring, watch for FOLRZ to kick off its fundraising campaign and debut plans for our next major project, a new primate exhibit. If Wild Affair is your favorite event (and how could it not be with fabulous food, beverages, live music, great auction items and a chance to catch up with friends), mark Sept. 6 on your social schedule! BOO! will celebrate 20 years in 2014, so you'll want to "get your ghoul on" Oct. 18. Even more zoo fun is on tap for this year, but this is a wild start! Come see us soon!

Visit our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.