Winter at the Zoo

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” This phrase originally referred to the courier service of the ancient Persian Empire. Today it certainly applies to those hardy souls who keep the zoo thriving throughout Illinois winters.

Winter brings changes for animals and keepers. Certain animals may need changes in diet, habitat, and enrichment. The keepers are educated on the various needs of each animal at the zoo. Their goal is to keep zoo exhibits similar to the animal’s natural habitat. 

The temperature makes a difference for the animals and the keepers. Children’s Zoo keepers who spend most of their day outside everyday wear coveralls, extra layers, hats, and gloves. Rainforest keepers who work inside all day in 80 degree rooms may still be wearing shorts in the middle of winter. 

For many animals there is a specific temperature that determines if they need to be inside. Once it drops below 40 degrees the Flamingoes are moved inside. Temperature is not the only consideration. If the wind is higher than 14 miles per hour they must stay inside. Flamingoes are not the only animal affected by high winds. When very high winds are in the forecast, keepers will also move the geese inside. The pudu and anteaters are outside if the weather is above 45 degrees. Tortoises don’t get outside access until it is 55 degrees. Even when they are inside, you can still view the tortoises through the window in their holding area. 

Some animals love the cold. Otters and snow leopards are definitely happy about the colder weather. They are much more playful during the winter months. Other animals like box turtles go through something called brumation. Brumation is a winter cool-down which allows the turtle to survive when food is scarce, and temperatures are lower. Turtles burrow into soft soil and enter into a period of sluggishness, inactivity, and torpor. They live off stored fat and their metabolism slows, but they can still move around if needed. 

Winter brings changes in both habitats and diet for some animals. Temperatures and light schedules are changed to mirror what would happen in the animals’ natural habitat. The beehive is winterized. A cozy is placed around the hive to help keep it insulated. Keepers make sure the bees have enough honey and bee bread for the winter months. If they don’t, extra food is provided. Heated water bowls ensure animals always have access to fresh water. The heater is turned on in the gator pool so the water is in the 60s all winter. Snow is shoveled out of the goat and crane exhibits. Tortoises tend to eat less in the winter so they have two different diets, depending on the season of the year. Our alligator only needs to be fed May through October.

When a storm comes, some animals are given access to move inside if they choose. Depending on the severity of the storm some animals are kept inside. If the storm becomes a city warning, a weather code is activated. Keepers make sure all animals are safe. Visitors are moved to a safe location. The staff use radios and a special app to communicate. 

Winter doesn’t stop the Zoo. City park employees arrive first thing in the morning to clear the parking lot and pathways. The Zoo is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Educational programs, volunteer opportunities, birthday parties and fun events are offered all year round.