Warm weather-loving animals at Cincinnati Zoo stay plenty busy during the winter months

Posted at 12:00 PM, Jan 07, 2017

CINCINNATI -- With colder temperatures on tap for later in the week, many folks may be adding sweaters to their pups or limiting their pet’s outdoor exposure altogether.

But how do animals originally from a warmer climate -- say the tropics or the Sahara Desert in Africa -- adjust to the cold?

Wendy Rice says "hello" to one of the Cincinnati Zoo's residents while behind the scenes at the giraffe exhibit. Christine Charlson | WCPO contributor

To find out, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens head Africa keeper Wendy Rice took us through what a typical winter look like for some of their warm-weather loving residents.

On this particular chilly morning at the lion enclosure, the girls lounged outside, huddled together all looking content.

Rice explained although the lions have warm, comfy indoor living quarters, quite often they prefer to remain outdoors using body heat to stay warm.

“Unless there’s conditions out here that are icy or unsafe for them to be on exhibit, we always give them the option to be inside or outside,” she said. “So the door is always open and they can come out if they want to or they can stay inside where it’s warm if they want to.”

Female lions Imani, Uma, Kya and Willa choose to hang together outside, even in the chilly winter months. Christine Charlson | WCPO contributor

To help add some outdoor comfort, Rice said their enclosure contains design features like heated comfort rocks for the cats to lounge on.

But, she said, they tend to prefer to lay huddled together in pile of hay or leaves. Because many of the zoo's African animals -- including the lions -- were born in captivity in Midwestern climates, they’re fairly well acclimated to the change of seasons, she said.

“Even though instinctively they could handle African summers and winters, they’re much more used to the Cincinnati summer and winters,” Rice said.

Temporarily separated from the girls in the lion enclosure, John enjoys a moment outside in the brisk weather. Photo provided

Lions tend to be one of the easier species to keep content during the winter months, Rice said: even in the wild they spend nearly 20 hours a day sleeping or lounging.

When weather prohibits animals from going out, she said keepers focus on husbandry training and enrichment to keep them both mentally and physically stimulated. In the lions’ case, she said this year they’ll focus on teaching them how to lean in to receive hip injections for their annual vaccines.

“It’s a lot less traumatic for them if we turn it into something positive,” she said. “If you pair it with something like a guinea pig for John (the male lion’s favorite food), for example, then you take something that could be otherwise scary or traumatic and you turn it into something positive. And the winter months are nice because we have almost all day to work on that.”

The meerkats check out guests while hanging together outdoors. Christine Charlson | WCPO contributor

At the meerkat exhibit, a group sat outdoors huddled together, intensely watching guests go by. Rice explained they, too, could be indoors where it’s 70 degrees, but instead like being outside together as a group, checking things out. To provide enrichment for the curious species during the winter months, she said they’ll organize activities like scatter feeding, which makes meal time like a scavenger hunt.

“We’ll spread their bugs around and we’ll hide them in different puzzle feeders,” she said. “We try to recreate any natural behaviors they would be exhibiting in the wild.”

Species like giraffes also enjoy puzzle feeders as well as other enrichment activities to keep their curious, 18-inch-long tongue occupied. Rice said giraffes spend a great deal of time licking things in order to produce enough saliva to digest food. While inside this year, she said they’ll be working on hoof care by teaching the giraffes how to present their feet for inspection and maintenance. She said they also have the option most of the winter to stay indoors or go out. She said ironically, their newest additions seem to be the most excited about the cooler temperatures.

“Our baby giraffes don’t seem to be bothered by the cold,” Rice said. “Yesterday when we accessed them back in the building, all of the adults ran in and little ones wanted to stay out.”

The zoo’s other new pair, hippos Henry and Bibi also seem to be spending time both in and outdoors in Hippo Cove. As temperatures still remain in the double digits, Rice said they’ve been able to keep their outdoor pool heated to a comfortable 65 degrees. Behind the scenes, the pair is housed in an expansive enclosure complete with their own indoor swimming pool. She said one of the hippos’ favorite enrichment activities is trying new foods, as their diet allows them to eat virtually any fruit or vegetable.

Bibi beckons for Henry to come back outside. Christine Charlson | WCPO contributor

“Like us, they enjoy sweet things, so watermelon is a favorite and they really loved pumpkin when we got pumpkin in the fall,” she said. “Tomatoes are not popular. It’s funny because when you feed them a lot of the time the food falls out anyway, but Henry is very deliberate spitting it out, like, ‘Don’t ever bring me tomatoes again.’”

Just like domestic animals, Rice said their residents also enjoy playtime. In the case of hippos and lions, she said they order special hippo-proof or lion-proof toys like indestructible cylinders and balls that can hold up against intense strength, teeth and claws. For smaller animals like the meerkats, she said they’ll set up things like kiddie playpens to allow them to play ball inside. In the case of Bubba, a Ruppell’s griffin vulture, Rice said one of his favorite activities is tearing objects to pieces.

“They’re literally designed to tear into things,” she said. “Bubba loves shredding paper, we’ll just give him butcher paper and he’ll rip it to shreds -- he just loves ripping and tearing up stuff. “

As allowing birds the option to go in and out proves difficult, Rice said warm-weather species winter indoors. She said all water fowls have access to pools to keep them happily swimming while indoors.

For larger species like the storks, Rice said they release live fish within their pools to give them the opportunity to hunt -- an activity that keeps them busy most of the day. For land-loving birds like the crested guinea fowl, she said they’ll occasionally introduce a fake predator to keep life interesting.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a bunch of paper streamers and attaching them to a fan and turning it on -- and they’re like, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ ” she said. “When they’re inside, the pecking order intensifies, so they might start picking on the lowest one on the totem pole and that might be a good time to introduce a pseudo predator to give them some bigger things to worry about.”

Rice said one of the greatest things about zoos is they operate as a community in regard to best practices: Especially during the winter months, they’ll share successful ideas on how to keep animals happy and engaged while indoors. Every day when she comes to work, Rice said she’s in disbelief that she’s actually getting paid to spend time with these amazing animals and getting to know their very unique personalities.

“That’s another fun thing about being a keeper,” she said.” Every single day there’s all sorts of opportunities to be creative, problem solve and new things to train and new things to try. When they’re indoors, we want to make life as interesting as we can for them.”