Kansas City Zoo protects animals against cold, winter blues

Sunday, January 31, 2010 | 4:59 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Her name is Lola, but, contrary to the song of the same name, she's no showgirl.

She's a warthog, like Timon's sidekick Pumbaa in "The Lion King" — with ugly tusks and all.

She is a little on the prissy side. She doesn't like broccoli. And she doesn't like cold weather, either, so don't ask her to go out when it's colder than 45 degrees.

Which means that during this bitter January, Lola — like the other African animals at the Kansas City Zoo — spent a good deal of time inside.

The zoo is open year-round, even when Swope Park looks more like an Antarctic outpost than the middle of Kansas City. But because the lions and hippos and cheetahs and elephants can't go out in the cold and ice, the zoo reduces admission in the winter.

This particular winter has been an unusually cold one. High temperatures the first 13 days of January got stuck in single-digits and teens, well below normal highs in the mid-30s.

That's fine for Wen-Dee and Fagan, the red pandas. The llamas, sea lions and fallow deer can go out under those conditions, too.

But when it's as cold as it was earlier this month, the residents of Botswana and Tanzania, Uganda and the Congo stay all day in the stalls where, during warmer days, they sleep at night.

Behind the scenes in buildings only zoo employees can access, zookeepers make sure the animals are entertained and stimulated with daily activities. There, the keepers monitor the animals' winter weight and any sniffles. (The gorillas got their flu shots in November.)

But most of all, they're keeping the animals warm. Walk into the Scrubland Aviary building on a frigid winter's day, and it feels like you just stepped on to Hawaii.

When the outdoor temperature dives below 40, the buffalo weaver and the parakeets and the fat little lovebirds take shelter in this room outfitted with toys for their distraction.

"They would much rather be in here where it's 50s, 60s especially when it's been in the teens," zookeeper Mike Luck said.

"They're used to this. This is their home, so I don't think it's that unusual for them to be in here. It's really just like us. We spend a little bit more time in our homes and don't get to go out for those walks."

The "cheetah girls" of Kenya, Sadie, Claire and Gigi moved into the building they share with Lola after the first big snow of the season on Christmas Eve.

Cheetahs, lions, tigers and leopards are the more cold-tolerant of the African animals; they're comfortable in the mid-20s.

Inside, on the cheetah side of the building, it's about 60 degrees, and it's a toasty 70-something on Lola's wing. She prefers it that way.

"There's a fine line; you don't want it to be too hot if the animals are going to go out on exhibit," Luck said. "So when we do get nicer weather, you don't want them to have to go out to 45 from 85. That kind of a shock isn't great for them, so we keep it pleasant inside to keep them warm."

But it wasn't the cold that kept the girls stuck inside this month for about three weeks. A moat at the bottom of the sloped yard, buried under deep snow at mid-month, concerned zookeepers.

"Between the top of the moat and the chain link fence there's a hot wire to keep them out of the moat and act as a secondary barrier to keep them away from the perimeter fence," Luck said, looking out onto the cheetah exhibit, which was buried under nearly a foot of snow.

"See how sloped it is? They love to run and chase each other, and it's just a risk that they could slip off of that or fall and injure themselves on the ice, like we can."

As the temperatures rose close to cheetah comfort level, Luck let the girls out into their flat, covered outdoor stalls. But even those, with icicles hanging overhead, were icy.

One of the cheetahs tried to walk across a patch of ice, but her paw slid out from under her.

Feet that pound the African savanna clearly are not Uggs.

It's not just the temperature that determines whether the animals can go out in winter. It's also the snow, wind chill, rain, even sunshine or lack thereof.

And ice? There's no good that can come from an elephant falling down.

"That heavy of an animal slips, you've got problems," said general curator Liz Harmon, who oversees all the animals. "Kansas City, luckily, doesn't get this long a stretch. Usually we get two or three days when no one can get out, and then it will warm up again.

"But we had that extreme cold, and then the snow, and then the snow turning to ice."

Spending all that time inside affects the animals the same way it does humans: They can go a little stir crazy.

"We have more arguments and that sort of thing," Harmon said of the animals.

Luck said that his cheetah girls are more easygoing than some of their more, uh, intelligent, African counterparts.

"Some of our animals, like the gorillas, have a lot of personality and we know them really well and they're able to sort of let us know that they're a little more grumpy," he said.

During the winter months, zookeepers spend more time than usual working one-on-one with the animals on enrichment activities. All the animals have activities calendars, kind of like what you'd see for nursing home residents.

There may be no bingo hour, but the animals might listen to the radio or even watch TV.

"We have lots of TVs. They have movies and stuff," Harmon said.

The cheetahs like to play with boxes. Hillary, a vegetarian red river hog, loves to push things around, so zookeepers fill water-cooler jugs with her grain to entice her to roll it around her stall.

Hillary loves a good scratch, too. Luck demonstrated by reaching a long-handled back scratcher through the mesh on her stall and rubbing her behind her ears.

Instantly in hog heaven, the porcine gal dropped to the ground like a 160-pound bag of bricks.

Happily for the animals and their keepers, the residents of Africa began venturing outside again recently, as temperatures climbed, and the snow and ice melted.

"Everybody's pretty happy right now," Harmon said.

Hakuna matata.

No worries.

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