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When winter gets its coldest, many zoo residents feel at home

When the temperatures drop below zero in the winter, we layer on extra jackets and hunker down inside. The residents at Syracuse's zoo have different ways of dealing with the bitter cold elements.

A pool of bubbling water is probably the last place a human would look for warmth on a frigid January day. But it’s a reprieve from the wind chill for the small Humboldt Penguins at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse.

An oil on the birds’ feathers allows them to dry off with just a few shakes after a dip in the water. But Humboldt Penguins are native to South America, not the Antarctic, so the zoo is careful the birds don’t spend too much time outdoors in the cold.

"Most of the year, it’s very similar to the temperatures they’re used to in their native habitat. This time of year, though, when it gets down below 20 and into the teens, that makes it a little problematic for them and they can get frostbite, so that’s why we have to have some heated areas for them," said zoo director Ted Fox on a recent snowy, cold day.

Fox says many species at the zoo are native to colder climates, like the Amur Tiger, native to Russia and the grey wolf, and they prefer the winter.

Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO
Grey wolves are often more active during winter days like this recent one at zoo.

"They’ll sleep outside all winter, all night. They don’t really prefer to go inside," he said of the wolves. "So they’re pretty happy."

But some animals aren’t designed for the snow, like elephants and lions. Fox says lions have learned to prepare for the cold, though.

"They can put on a thick coat, just like your domestic cat at home, or dog. So in this climate, as long as they’re exposed to it all summer and the changes in the fall, they get a thicker and thicker coat, much more so than one you’d see at a zoo in Miami or Houston or somewhere," he said.

Still, the zoo doesn’t let the big cats go outside when it’s below 20 degrees. Heated barns keep the elephants warm. That means on cold days visitors may not see a lion, but the zoo’s snow leopard cub will be scampering around, instead of lying in the shade keeping cool in July.

Fox says many species at the zoo are able to prep for cold through the fall by bulking up and adding layers of feathers or fur. That means in many cases, they’re more ready for a blast of cold weather than we are.