Special Report: Zoo in Winter

BOWLING GREEN, KY – Most people probably think zoo animals spend more time in their indoor enclosures during the winter months. While this is true for some animals that require more of a tropical environment all year round, a majority of the animals actually love winter more than summer and spend most of their time outside.

At Kentucky Down Under, that’s because their native climate in Australia can get quite cold.

“You’ve got to remember these are a desert environment where these animals live. So it gets really really hot during the day and then really really cold during the night. So it can actually drop below zero,” said Mick McGill with Kentucky Down under.

One of the animals at the zoo, the bison, can withstand temperatures up to -100°F. With their thick coats, they prefer to hang out outside during the winter. They do have a standing shelter to shield them from the elements, but they typically only use it to avoid the rain.

Wolves, dingoes and arctic foxes all love to play in the cold, too. Wolves are the second most tolerant to the cold though. They can withstand up to -30°F. A high protein diet helps keep them warm and active.

Dingoes on the other hand aren’t as fortunate to have such thick coats and require a heating unit. Although, they don’t use it too often because Kentucky is a well-suited, tempered environment for them.

Kentucky is also perfect for the Arctic Fox.

“You’ll see them out, you’ll see them playing. This is exact temperature that they want to be in. The colder it is the happier they are. What they’ll do is they’re actually going to grow their winter coat this time of year. So they’re going to look like these amazing fluffy teddy bears. And then they’ll lose that winter coat and they’ll shed it over summertime. So it helps them adjust to the different temperature environments of Kentucky, making them perfectly suited here for this environment,” said McGill.

On the contrary, some animals need a little extra attention during the winter to make sure they don’t get too cold.

The most high maintenance creature is the sloth. Year-round, it’s necessary for his enclosure to be at 90°F with 100% humidity.

“He’s got humidifiers up here. He’s got two different sources of heat, both scarce and wood and electric, and because of his temperature requirements year round, if for whatever reason if this building was to ever drop below a certain temperature, alarms will actually start going off on my phone to be able to come in and fix the situation.”

Sharing the same housing unit over the winter, in separate enclosures of course, are the tortoises, caiman, coatimundis, kookaburras and tropical birds. This building is kept at 80°F year round with the help of many heaters.

Lemurs also have a heated enclosure they like to hang out in during colder weather. Surprisingly, lemurs are just like us humans. They like to spend some time outside during the day, then get warmed up inside after they’ve had their fun.

“They’re very similar to humans. Same body temperature requirements. Same heating requirements that we would have. Everybody likes to go home and go into their 70° house and the lemurs are the exact same way. And very similar diet restrictions as well. These ones here will eat different fruits and vegetables,” said McGill.

Kangaroos tend to be an indoor/outdoor animal too. However, they require the most hard labor. Zookeepers have to continuously chop wood all winter long to have enough supply for the wood heater to keep the kangaroo barn warm. The wood heater requires a bit more work than just adding chopped wood though.

“We put the water here at the top of this valve. And it boils the water, creates a steam. And it will force the steam down in the pipes. And those pipes will run underground, right up into the kangaroo barn and will actually blow that heat out. It does an absolutely beautiful job. We have staff here 24/7 that will keep this running, keep it operating. Even if it gets to negative degrees, -5°, -10°, that kangaroo barn will stay at 70-80° year round,” said McGill.

Kangaroos spend more time outside than not, but they still enjoy a warm, cozy place to huddle up and catch a break from the excitement outside.

If you visit a zoo in the winter time, you might be surprised how many animals are just simply enjoying the weather. Plus, there’s less of a crowd.