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Not wild for winter: Here’s how the KC Zoo helps its tropical animals handle the cold

Zoo keeps a close watch on animals during cold weather

The Kansas City Zoo provides plenty of heated areas for animals but gives many the choice to go outside during the winter.
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The Kansas City Zoo provides plenty of heated areas for animals but gives many the choice to go outside during the winter.

Being a giraffe during a Kansas City winter can be tough sledding.

They can’t go outside in the ice or snow lest they splay their legs out like Bambi on a frozen pond. It’s too cold for their 25-pound hearts to efficiently pump blood all the way up to their car-engine-sized heads. They spend a lot of time cooped up in a barn.

It is a nice barn, though. Really nice. Heck, a lot of horses and cattle around these parts might stand a little taller if they knew they could be this cozy in January and February.

They have all the hay, alfalfa and nutritious grain they care to eat. The thermostat is set in the 70s and 80s. And, when it’s decent out, they can make occasional trips into the yard.

Still, despite the exemplary care they receive from zookeepers, it’s easy to anthropomorphize them as pining for the savannah this time of year.

These are the challenges of the Kansas City Zoo in the winter, where for every otter that thrives in the cold there’s a chimpanzee that needs special accommodations once the temperature drops below 45 degrees.

The giraffes need to go inside once the temp dips below 60, but that’s not the case with other African animals.

“Lions can go outside when it’s 25 degrees outside,” said Sean Putney, senior director of zoological operations. “Same with cheetahs. They tolerate the weather just fine. Some species are much more tolerant of cold or hot weather. Other species, we have to be more careful about.”

There’s the zoo’s giant tortoises — Aldabra and spurred varieties from Africa, for example. They can’t go out unless it’s at least 55 and sunny. Below that threshold, they all but stop moving. And suddenly you have a 450-pound animal that you have to get indoors.

The zoo’s tortoise barn is pretty balmy, with overhead heaters hung about 5 feet above the floor and ultraviolet lights for the tortoises to bask in.

“Summertime is about their best time,” said Josh Murray, an animal assistant manager. “Once it starts getting cool, they’re kind of stuck inside.”

Kangaroos, on the other hand, have the run of the outback as long as the temp is above 30 degrees. They’ll go in at night, but in the daytime, they can be seen roaming around the premises, bounding up to 30 mph. But they have issues.

“The kangaroos are very fragile, so the ice is the problem,” said Stacia Pieroni, an animal assistant manager. “Even if the temperature is nice, we can’t allow them to go out and slip and fall.”

Meanwhile, how does the zoo make certain the animals are well cared for if the roads are too slick for the staff to get to work?

The solution: A skeleton crew of keepers camps all night at the zoo when severe weather is forecast.

“It’s enough people that can get around to each area and get food to the animals, give any medications, do some general cleaning and be able to take care of them,” Putney said.

A few weeks ago, while Kansas Citians hunkered down in their cozy subdivisions during the impending icemageddon of Winter Storm Jupiter, zookeepers set up camp in the penguin exhibit in case the power went out.

“The penguin lights stay on pretty much 24/7 these days, so we didn’t exactly have a dark area where we were sleeping,” Putney said. “A lot of the keepers had the sleeping bags up over their heads during the night.”

It’s not just the animals (and keepers) that need special care this time of year.

Palms, hibiscus, bismarckia, jasmine, philodendrons, gardenias, banana plants: All are gathered up in the fall and stored in a long, tall greenhouse until May.

“Sometimes it will take us well into a month to move all the tropicals into the greenhouse,” said horticulture manager Crystal Broadus-Waldram.

Kansas Citians and the zoo have been fortunate enough to have mild winters in recent years.

“I think the winter about three years ago was probably the toughest one since I’ve been here because the animals couldn’t go out for extended periods of time,” said Alicia Wedel, an animal assistant manager. “They just get a little cooped up. We got really creative with enrichment that winter.”

“Enrichment” is the fancy zoo word for giving the animals something to do.

Plenty of natural things keep their attention outside, Wedel said. But when the animals are stuck inside, the staff supplies all the fun. Keepers put sand on the floor as a substitute for dirt to play in. At mealtime, they provide the challenge of puzzle feeders: A feeder for giraffes, for example, requires them to use their tongues to pull out feed.

Also in the giraffe area, the animals can bang on a plastic baby swimming pool and make noise, and they can kick around toy bowling pins.

Keepers also work with the animals two or three times a day, depending on their social and mental abilities.

“An ostrich is not the most intellectual animal, so she wouldn’t need to be trained twice a day,” Wedel said.

The rhinoceroses, however, do need mental stimulation. Below 45 degrees or so, they have to come inside so they don’t get frostbite, especially in their horns.

“They’re super lovey,” Wedel said. “They love to be brushed and petted, and they love people interaction. We give them baths and oil their skin. They have a better skin regimen than we do.”

Plenty of zoo animals aren’t bothered by the weather. Tigers were out enjoying a 40-degree afternoon a few days ago. Otters and sea lions thrive in the cooler temps. The penguins probably would love it, but they’re kept inside except for the occasional Penguin March around the Helzberg Penguin Plaza. (They’ll be marching at 11 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday in February.) And the polar bears have outdoor and indoor areas.

But while the mild winters of late are nice for us humans, they do bring some other concerns.

Putney came here from the Omaha Zoo about 10 years ago, and he remembers some below-zero temps for multiple days in a row. Not so much any more. He wonders if the warming is a trend or just the ebb and flow of weather patterns.

“It does scare you a little bit,” he said. “One of the things with polar bears is the fact that there’s ice melting up in the Arctic, and their normal feeding grounds are going away. We try to find those educational moments where people understand what it means to have rising seas and changing ocean pH levels. They’re not only affecting the animals. They’re going to affect us, too.”

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese

At the zoo

The Kansas City Zoo is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Penguin March begins at 11 a.m. every Saturday and Sunday in February at the Helzberg Penguin Plaza. See kansascityzoo.org.

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