Despite Snow, the Zoo Must Go On

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.- The gates to John Ball Zoo have been closed for the season, for quite some time. Snow now covers the ticket gates and every display from that point and beyond. While visitors might not be giggling at the chimpanzees, frolicking outside, these creatures along with all of the others featured, are still being made comfortable through this extremely cold part of winter.

Zookeeper Kim Godby arrives every morning at 8 a.m. For part of her day, she can pretend that she is in the tropics while tending to the building that houses the flamingos, capybara, tapers and tropical  birds.

“We try to keep the building about 75 degrees on really, really cold days like we’re having right now with our poured walls, it stays about 65.” she said.

The taper, found in South America and a very close relative to a horse, will occasionally go out in the snow, but can not stand the extreme cold. Like the horse, it eats a high fiber diet to keep its body heat up, Godby said. With the animals inside during winter months, it also poses a great time for zoo keepers to work with them, to build up a trust.

“We do give him enrichment items which some people would call treats sometimes and we do give them different enrichment. Our program has things that might just be manipulation items, might be food items, just something to keep their curiosity, keep them from getting bored in the winter.” she added.

The world’s largest rodent, or capybara, is lodged in the neighboring stall to the taper, also from South America. The animal can be a household pet in that part of the world and does not like to be outside past 40 to 45 degrees. Because they have been raised in North American zoos, many of the animals have built up a tolerance, Godby added.

Flamingos have a reputation of frolicking around amongst the palm trees in Florida, but in fact, the ones at the John Ball Zoo are from Chile.  Godby said the will stay outside well into the fall, but in the colder months, it is harder to keep the wild mallards out of their food. Without the food, their weight drops and becomes an issue. They seem to fight off the winter blues by constant entertainment caused by bickering with one another.

Across the way, the rope bridges in the outdoor chimpanzee exhibit have icicles hanging off of them. It’s not that the chimps, who are from mountainous, colder regions in Africa, don’t go outside, it’s just that when it gets below 32, they are not kept inside, according to John Ball Zoo Director Andy McIntyre.

“Out in the exhibit, what you’ll find, is there’s two areas where there is elements that are heated; so there’s two sand pits that have heating coils underneath those and it radiates up in them.” McIntyre said. The same adjustments are made for the lions, with two heated rocks and a tree. Even thought there are not visitors filling the zoo sidewalks, it is bustling with activity. Construction workers are busy on a new bear exhibit which will be much better for people to get up close and personal to the animals. The exhibit has expanded and a glass viewing area will allow people to get nose to nose.  Along with that renovation, a children’s adventure area with rope bridges, will look over a hillside and right over the bears.

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