February 23, 2017
Takin, camels, and of course, the Saint Louis Zoo's polar bear love the cold—they romp around snow-blanketed habitats and snack on snow and even enjoy chilly snow-less days. These animals have certain adaptations—thick fur or layers of blubber—that help them handle harsh conditions.
Take the Zoo's polar bear Kali, who was born in the winter of 2013 on the Northwest Alaska coast. The 4-year-old bear, who now weighs more than 1,100 pounds, was orphaned in March 2013 near Point Lay, Alaska. Local students in the community named the young cub, Kali. After spending several months at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service placed Kali at the Buffalo Zoo with a bear his own age before Kali came to live in the Zoo's new state-of-the-art polar bear habitat—McDonnell Polar Bear Point.
"Kali clearly enjoys winter," said Zoo Curator of Mammals and Carnivores Steve Bircher.
These specialized carnivores depend on constantly diminishing amounts of sea ice to catch marine mammals, like seals. With ice disappearing, the bears are starving in the wild. Without action, scientists predict wild polar bears could disappear by 2100.
Temperature Keeps Some Inside
Unlike polar bears, some of the Zoo’s animals don’t tolerate cold weather well. Zookeepers must be careful to keep animals in comfortable conditions when harsh weather rolls through town. Especially for animals whose habitats rarely, if ever, encounter snow.
“Some animals can go outside only if temperatures rise above certain thresholds,” said Jack Grisham, Vice President, Animal Collections. “For lions, it has to be at least 15 degrees out for us to even let them go outside. Animals, like the lemurs or saki monkeys, are even more cold-sensitive and can’t come out until it’s above well-above freezing.”
For animals with temperature restrictions that fluctuate within the natural temperature range outdoors, the Zoo allows them to go out into their outdoor habitats, but always with the ability to return to their heated indoor enclosures. Many of the animal habitats have warm “spots” where animals may go for supplemental warmth and shelters, such as the chimpanzees who have multiple hot air blowers in their outdoor habitat.
Sea Lions Visible All Winter
In addition, many Zoo habitats are climate-controlled so visitors can see the animals. For example, the Zoo's nine sea lions are very visible enjoying their habitat at Sea Lion Sound no matter how cold the weather is outside. That's because these California natives have temperature-controlled salt water which ranges between 45 degrees in the winter and 68 degrees in the summer. The Zoo's three harbor seals' native home is the coastal waters of the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They, too, enjoy the temperature-controlled waters.
Speaking of temperature controls, Penguin & Puffin Coast offers a water-filled paradise for its 23 rockhopper, 23 king, 17 Humboldt and 14 gentoo penguins. The same is true for the 10 tufted and 12 horned puffins. Rockhopper penguins are from locations ranging from South America to sub-Antarctic islands. Humboldt penguins share their name with the chilly Humboldt Current, which flows north from Antarctica along the Pacific Coast of South America, where the birds live. The king penguin is from Antarctica, while gentoo penguins live as far south as the bare icy shores of Antarctica and as far north as the grassy meadows of islands off South America.
Zookeepers Keep Animals Energetic
In addition to the temperature restrictions placed on the Zoo’s fauna, zookeepers also work to keep animals comfortably warm by bedding shelters down with extra straw. And for those animals whose natural physiology doesn’t provide for fun in the snow, zookeepers sometimes bring the fun to them. Keepers work hard to offer enrichment to animals to keep them energetic and active while indoors.
Winter storms also tax all Zoo personnel—keepers sometimes stay in nearby hotels so they can be sure to get back to the Zoo quickly. "We deliver twice as much food if we hear a bad storm is on the way," said Deb Schmidt, Ph.D. Nutritionist at the Zoo. "Even though the Zoo Grounds crews work hard to clear paths as quickly as possible for all staff and any visitors, we make sure that food is available should the paths at the Zoo be too hazardous to get our vehicles to each location."
Camels, Takin Love Cold
Neither icy roads nor driving snow bother the Zoo's seven Sichuan takin from Western China. The takin browses in the dense bamboo forests of China, a habitat it shares with the giant panda. The takins live in herds and have few predators besides humans. Otherwise their habits are not well known, partly because they live in such remote areas. Scientists do know, however, that the number of wild takins is declining due to hunting and habitat destruction. Fortunately, these animals are considered national treasures by the Chinese government and are fully protected by law.
Other animals that are happy in winter are the Zoo's three Bactrian camels from chilly Mongolia. Not until spring do Bactrian camels completely shed their thick dark winter coat, leaving them almost hairless during the hot summer months. Although Bactrian camels once numbered in the millions, now there are fewer than 1,000 left in their native range in Mongolia. The Zoo is helping to save this endangered species from extinction.
Snow Leopards, Grizzlies
Finally, among the cold-loving animals are the Zoo's two beautiful snow leopards from Central Asia. Endangered in the wild, snow leopards are well adapted to the cold climate of their homeland. They have an extra-large nasal cavity, which warms the air they breathe. And their large paws have fur-covered foot pads that act like built-in "snowshoes." They have long body hair with an under-layer of dense fur that can be up to five inches thick. This plush coat is colored to blend in with snowy, rocky surroundings: gray and white with black spots. Visitors can find these remarkable creatures in Big Cat Country.
Speaking of animals that like cold weather, in September 2017, the Zoo will welcome two wild grizzly bears from Montana. They will be at home in Grizzly Ridge—the last new habitat that is part of the Zoo's complete reconstruction of its historic 1920s-era bear grottos. When Grizzly Ridge opens, visitors will be able to watch grizzly bears through a floor-to-ceiling glass viewing area for the first time at the Zoo.
You don't need to wait for a beautiful day to visit the Zoo. Despite the unusual warm winter in recent days, temperatures may drop again, but don't let that stop you from bundling up and coming to see the many animals that like to be out in the cold. If the chill is too much, visit the warm buildings where exotic birds, primates, great apes, amphibians and reptiles can be found. They are warm as can be.