Great Plains Zoo keeping animals cool in extreme heat

Icy treats, misters, air conditioning and close monitoring for heat stroke symptoms keep zoo animals safe
Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 7:40 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Icy treats, dips in the pool, and staying cool inside with air conditioning.

Animals at the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls take many of the same measures most people do on oppressively hot days like Monday, when the temperature reached the mid 90′s and the heat index threatened 100.

Meanwhile, the staff takes the medical attention for extreme heat extremely seriously.

But let’s start with the good stuff. The ice treats.

Nobody gets ice cream, but some enjoy the equivalent of another human summer favorite — popsicles.

“It’s very specific to what goes into those,” said Denise DePaolo, the zoo’s director of public relations and engagement. “Everyone kind of gets their favorite foods, and we freeze them in a block of ice with flavored water.”

The Alaskan brown bears, known best for their love of meat and bones, are actually health nuts when it comes to ice snacks. Lettuce, oranges, and strawberries for them.

For snow monkeys, a layer of “biscuit mash” — kind of like a graham cracker crunch, DePaulo notes — and a layer of sunflower seeds.

Lemurs and other primates enjoy treats full of bamboo, vegetables, and sweet potatoes.

Some animals are more into their cool spaces than cool edibles.

Bears and monkeys have pools to swim (yeah, they swim!) and will put on splash shows for adoring fans at their display habitats.

”It’s easy to think they don’t notice you, but trust me, they’re aware,” DePaolo said. “They kind of like hamming it up.”

Red pandas and big horn sheep are pampered by the cool of misters. Imagine kicking it in a mist tent all day.

“One thing you’ll notice is the misters really make the rocks nice and cool and wet,” DePaolo said, “and so while the animals may not be hanging out directly in the water spray, they do like to go crawl around on these cool, wet rocks.”

But when it comes to avoiding heat strokes, the zoo isn’t monkeying around.

It has a full-time medical staff here so if the zookeepers are seeing any signs of heat stress on these animals, veterinarians are on-site on weekdays and on-call on weekends.

”I spend more time with these animals than with my own child,” said Joel Locke, the lead keeper of bears and cats. “So, in that sense, I know them really, really well, so it’s easy for most of the keepers here to be able to tell when there’s signs of distress and stuff.”

As you’d expect, the keepers become emotionally attached to the animals, almost like a bear to its cubs... especially when they show any signs of heat exhaustion, like heavy open mouth breathing and increased respiration.

“There’s a lot of human emotion,” Locke said. “I mean, for us, you know, we want to give them the best welfare, the best care for them as you can. So, for us, we jump to action as soon as possible.”

It starts in the morning, when keepers turn on the misters and start feeding ice treats. The misters have their own timers, so the zoo doesn’t waste water. But the animals are closely monitored at all times.

The keepers and veterinarians know the temperature thresholds for each species, and how long is too long to stay outside in the heat.

Some animals like snow leopards and tigers, don’t come outside on a day like today.

”As an (American Zoo Association) facility, we’re really empowered to put the animals first — their comfort and their health,” DePaolo said. “And, so in order to keep things comfortable and healthy and keep it like this, just like people, we have to keep them hydrated, keep them cool, and we look for any way that we can.”

For daily updates on what you might be able to see when you come to the zoo, check out the Great Plains Zoo Facebook page. And, of course, there are adorable videos on TikTok.

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