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Some Zoo animals can't wait for snowy days

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Posted at 11:27 AM, Dec 18, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-18 11:28:09-05

CINCINNATI -- Anyone who disliked last year’s cold temperatures and snow must be rejoicing at this year’s warmer than normal December. However, a number of winter-loving animals at the Cincinnati Zoo may be looking to the sky wondering, where’s the snow?

While polar bears may be an obvious choice but there are many other species at the zoo yearning for a wintery blast. From red pandas to snow monkeys to penguins and murres, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens is home to birds and beasts that really feel that winter is the best time of the year.

Red Pandas Love To Romp In Snow

Red Pandas are built for cold weather, explained senior keeper Lisa Browning. Living in the frosty mountainous regions of the Himalayas spanning China, Nepal, India and Bhutan, these cold-weather lovers dress appropriately with a year round fur coat two to three inches thick. The fur even covers the panda’s feet to provide warmth as well as added traction in the snow and ice. Browning said they wrap their bushy tails around their faces to cover the eyes and nose when they sleep. In fact, they’re so well insulated the zoo provides air conditioning during the hot summer months to help keep them cool, Browning said.. 

“They are very active in the winter time, that’s the best time of the year to see them. They love to play. That’s when they’re most comfortable,” she said. “In the summer time you generally find them asleep up in a tree. They pant, they don’t sweat, they don’t have any sweat glands so the pant to stay cool.”

One thing red pandas love is snow. Browning said as it appeals to their playful nature. Last year, her video of the rambunctious rascals romping in the snow  went viral. She said she’s always excited to see a new cub’s reaction when it encounters snow for the first time.

“It’s really funny because you never know how they’ll behave,” she said. “One year we had one cub and the first time he came out he was like, ‘Yuck, no I don’t want to step in this,’ and his father came up and just pummeled and rolled him around. He was freaking out and his dad was just racing all over the place and having a good time.” 

Red pandas are considered endangered with fewer than 10,000 remaining in the wild. Browning explained their fur is highly coveted in hat making by the Chinese. She said they’re also captured for the pet trade as people are enamored by their adorable appearance and playful personality. But she said red pandas may cute in the wild, but are not designed to be domesticated.

“These guys have extremely long sharp claws which they climb with so they’d shred your furniture,” she said. “They also scent-mark and leave a secretion that sticks around for quite some time. It’s kind of waterproof and it builds up. So as soon as you clean it off they will re-scent-mark again. As cute as they are, they don’t make great pets.” 

She encourages visitors to come out and see the red pandas during their favorite time of year – winter. She said the worse the weather is outside, the happier these guys get.

“They’re always funny – they’re a riot,” she said. “They’ll be out all winter long. For the first snowfall be here because who knows what antics they’ll get into.”

Arctic Fox Grows A Winter Coat

With a name like arctic fox, you can guess these animals love the winter months. Senior keeper Tanya Dietz explained that like the red pandas, the arctic fox also grows a thick coat to protect itself from the elements, as well as an insulating bushy tail and fur covered feet for traction in ice and snow. She pointed out one major difference: the artic fox sheds its thick white coat to transition to a short gray and black coat during the spring. 

“They change back and forth really well here and the coat is a lot shorter in the summer than it is in the winter,” she said. “So they do live in an area when there is some spring, so their coat changes, it sheds out and it flushes back out when winter starts to set back in.” 

Native to the arctic tundra including regions of Canada, Greenland, Northern Russia and Scandinavia, Dietz explained the animals tend to flourish during the warmer months hunting small mammals, birds and fish. During the winter, she said they often follow behind polar bears to feed on leftover scraps from kills. 

“They’re incredibly smart,” she said. “Their really thick, white coat obviously helps them blend in to the snow and allows them follow the polar bears. They let the polar bears do all the work and then show up for a meal.”

The arctic fox enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo is located just past the polar bears, nestled in the hillside. During the summer months, Dietz said keepers add fans to keep them cool, and provide chill pads beneath their straw to give them a cool spot to nap. Dietz said even though they shed to a lighter weight coat in warmer weather, the foxes still are more active during the winter months. She said they seemed content with last year’s winter, especially the snow. 

“When it snows we need to clean off the top of the exhibit so it doesn’t get too heavy or droop,” she said. So one afternoon I was knocking the snow off and it was falling through. Sly came out and was jumping in the piles of snow that fell down and she was rolling around in it. They really enjoy it.”

King, Rockhoppers and Magellanic Penguins Share Space

Next to polar bears, penguins may be the most obvious choice for cold weather lovers. Of the five species of penguins living at the zoo, senior aviculturist Cody Sowers explained three species (the king, rockhoppers and Magellanic) live together in their exhibit as a colony. As they share a similar subarctic climate in the wild, their enclosure is kept between 40 and 50 degrees during the summer and allowed to cool down to the 30s with outside air in the winter.

Sowers said the enclosure is designed as a compromise to mirror all three species’ natural habitat: rocks, sand and soft mud.

“The really cool thing about penguins in zoos is that penguins just like to be in groups with other penguins,” he said. “They’re colony animals and that’s where they want to be, they want to be all together and all hanging out in that penguin colony. There’s no hierarchy like the kings don’t boss the rock hoppers around – basically everybody is just equal in this penguin colony.”

During the winter months, Sowers explained the king penguins participate in what’s called the ‘penguin parade’ where they all line up, walk down a ramp and then proceed to an outdoor exhibit in the Children’s Zoo. He said he likes to keep the penguin enclosure a stress-free environment, so it’s up each individual whether they choose to participate or not.

“When I do the parade, I just open the door and they walk out,” he said. “Anyone who wants to come on the parade walks out and we go from there. And it’s really odd to see, but it’s very comical. Sometimes they don’t come out. They’re on the far side of the exhibit and you’ll open the door and a few of them walk out and then some with just kind of stand there; alright, see you later.”

While the king penguins can’t endure the double digit low temps like their cousins the emperor penguins, Sowers explained the king penguins still do well in extreme cold. Even during the polar vortex a few years back, he said the king’s were completely comfortable outdoors. He encourages people to come out and witness the penguin parade as their behavior changes dramatically, especially if there’s snow.

“They were doing a lot of behaviors out in the snow that they can’t do in their exhibit,” he said. “They were going out and tobogganing on their bellies and they were jumping out of the water on their bellies and eating snow. It was really cool.”

Whiskered Auklet , Crested Auklet and Common Murre

Besides penguins, a number of other feathered friends prefer colder temperatures. Sowers referred to penguins as a gateway animal, drawing people into the exhibit and ideally introducing them to other species as well. The auklets live on islands off the coast of Alaska. As with the penguins, the zoo keeps the temperature in the exhibit in the mid-40s during the summer, then cools it to the 30s with outdoor air in the winter. He said these are the birds that were most affected by the Exxon oil spill in the late 80s.

“Exxon still does some studies with these guys, studying if there’s any oil in there system from their oil spill,” he said. “The health of these guys in their habitat is an indication of how well they’re natural habitat is doing, so it’s kind of interesting thing.”

From the arctic shores to the arctic cliffs, Sowers said the common murre performs the exact same job penguins do in nature but are unrelated species. He said it’s a great example of convergent evolution as the penguins and murres live on opposite ends of the planet. Both auklets and murres are still abundant in the wild, which is a windfall for those wanting to see cold weather birds on a budget.

“If we want to go see these guys in their natural habitat you can catch a flight to Maine for about $300 and get a bird watching tour for not much more than that,” he said. “If you go and see penguins in their natural habitat you’re spending $3,000 on a flight and $10,000 on a boat..”

Steller’s Sea Eagle Soars Over Japan And Russia

When it comes to the larger variety of winter weather birds, the zoo features fantastic example with the Steller's sea eagle. According to senior aviculture keeper Dan B, everyone knows the bald eagle thrives in Alaska, so it’s no wonder its relative the Steller sea eagle lives and breeds in frigid regions of Russia and Japan. Feeding primarily on small rodents and fish, he said their giant beak is ideal for ripping the thick skin off salmon.

“They’re actually pretty cool because when you see them in the exhibit right now they’re brown and white, but if you see them in the snow, you’ll see they have white shoulders, white on their head and white tail – they blend right in,” he said.

Japanese Macaques Huddle For Warmth 

With the nickname of ‘snow monkey,’ the Japanese Macaque inhabits frigid forest and mountainous regions of Japan. Primate team leader Eric High explained snow monkeys can endure sub-zero temps thanks to their thick fur and additional blood flow to exposed areas of skin on their face and rear. 

“The capillaries are right there on their skin so it gives it that red look, but it keep them warmer,” he said.

While they can endure extreme cold, High explained there are times when the snow monkeys must be brought indoors. He said it becomes especially important when the water surrounding their enclosure freezes. 

“If the moat starts freezing over then they can walk out,” he said. “So we make sure that doesn’t happen.”

While it may be cold outside, mating season heats up during the winter months, High explained. He said the zoo would like to expand the current group of four with a baby snow monkey in the spring. 

Unlike other species of primates, High said the Macaques numbers are still stable in the wild. He said while they do face some habitat loss due to human encroachment, they’re protected by Japanese environmental laws. 

“These guys are actually doing pretty well, most primates are endangered, but because Japan is a developed country it seems like it’s less of a concern,” he said.

Snow monkeys live in mixed groups of males and females ranging anywhere from four to 20, High said. To help stay warm, he explained snow monkeys often huddle together or hug each other to increase body heat. He said besides humans, the Macaques are the northern most primates. He said they seem to enjoy the snow as a sort of enrichment. 

“Of course they don’t want to sit in it and I don’t blame them,” he said. “”But the first time they get snow they enjoy it.”