GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids does not open to the public until March 27, but that doesn’t mean they stop working.
Especially in this cold weather one of the main goals is to make sure all the animals are safe.
After Friday it’s now a winter wonderland at the zoo, where more than 2,000 animals and 230 species call home. Some are in heaven with all the snow.
“We have a North American section at John Ball Zoo, so that includes brown bears, cougars, lynx and otters; those guys are made from the cold. They’re from this climate – they want to go outside,” said Jaime Racalla, animal care supervisor.
The newly popular red panda cubs love it too, practicing their defensive skills and wrestling.
There’s also bears, eagles and tigers.
“And so when we get cold like this,” said Racalla, “we have to use varying techniques to make sure they’re staying warm, and other animals actually want to go outside--so making sure they have the ability to enjoy themselves outdoors.”
Some animals from warmer climates are completely housed inside with temps in the 70s or higher during the winter. That means zoo staff has to be flexible.
“Those buildings are obviously temperature controlled; we set it to what they’re comfortable at. It does make it interesting for us because sometimes you’ll be working with some animals that want to be outdoors completely, and then the next area that you might go in to take care of might be like the meerkats and the tigers, and they’re in a building that’s 70, so we wear a lot of layers here.”
If they’re used to the cold, they may want to go out and investigate.
“We’ll give them free choice; like our lions will actually go check out the snow a little bit before it gets too cold; some of our African hoofstock will go out a little bit in the snow to here and there,” Racalla said.
Even when it drops into the teens and single digits or snows several inches, that doesn’t stop them from acting just like children.
“But when we get this big accumulation like we have, we might not find it fun, but just like our kids at home some of these animals really enjoy getting out and playing in the snow.”
Workers even shovel inside the exhibit so it’s safe for the animals and staff who feed them and check habitats to make sure the doors work. There’s also a little change in the animals’ eating habits.
“That’s definitely something we monitor and adapt,” said Racalla. “Some animals that are going out in the cold are gonna use a lot more calories, so we adjust their diets accordingly. Some animals that are being inside and just resting a little bit more, we might have to back off their calories so they keep a good weight.”
Workers themselves may not be as fast in the cold temps but say the extreme weather is just part of being in Michigan.
“I think the payoff of having the ability to watch them enjoy the snow makes it worth it,” said Racalla.
I’m told the brown bears don’t go into hibernation, but they are a bit slower and seem to just shuffle around.
As of right now, when the zoo fully reopens March 27, it will be following state protocols like social distancing and mask requirements if they’re still in place.