These Minnesota zoo animals are unfazed by record-breaking winter
During the colder months at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, cat naps get extended, monkeys move inside and bears take a break, but life finds a way under thick snow.
DULUTH — The goats appreciated that someone pushed a snowblower through their barnyard. The path was clear from their stalls to zookeeper Jessica Phoenix, who was mobbed by the ungulates who raced out when the barn door opened.
"When you hand them pellets, they're like a little goat funnel," Phoenix said with a laugh as she fed her charges. "You drop the pellets above their head and they just funnel them into their mouth."
From a path above the Lake Superior Zoo's barnyard, Mariya and Steve Skube drew their daughter Vivian's attention to the goat mob. The Skube family was among the few guests walking the grounds last week, shortly after the zoo opened for the day.
"Vivian's a new big sister, so we're just bringing her on a little date to celebrate for her," said Mariya Skube as Vivian ran through the snow to enjoy her full reign of the outdoor play equipment. "She's been asking to come to the zoo."
"We told her she should put her snowpants on," said Steve Skube.
In return for bundling up to get out to the zoo, visitors like the Skubes get a little extra attention. "During the winter," said zookeeper Bethany Wright, "I interact with guests more because there are less people, so I can do more one-on-one interactions."
Wright's focus is primates and nocturnal animals, who are snug in their climate-controlled building. They're nonetheless aware of the seasonal change, said Wright.
"They can kind of tell that the season has changed, even if it's still warm in the building," Wright said. "They just decide that's their time to get a little more sleep, maybe eat a little bit more to bulk up."
Large primates like the Angolan colobus monkeys, ring-tailed lemurs and black crested mangabeys aren't released to their outdoor enclosures during wintertime, said Wright. "They still have their indoor spaces that they can hang out, and it's nice and warm for them."
Those primates can look outside and see the days grow shorter. That's not the case in the windowless Nocturnal Building, where day and night are artificially reversed.
"Lights are on at night, and they're off during the day so that guests can see the animals actually active during the time that they're supposed to be active," Wright explained.
Pabu, a Pallas's cat, has been deliberately placed in the building's coldest enclosure: a corner unit where two exterior walls let a little more of Duluth's winter seep in.
"Around this time of year, since it's cooler, he's a little more active," Wright said about the cat, whose species thrives in places like Siberia and the Himalayas. "He is a fluffy creature from a cold place, so he really likes the cold."
The zoo's turkey vulture, if left to her own devices, would just as soon get out of town when the temperature drops. "They would migrate, normally," Wright said. "She hangs out with us all winter long in a warm kitchen."
In the primate building's kitchen, a room where Wright prepares food for the nearby animals, the vulture peeked through a window from the adjoining enclosure. "We have a bunch of different kitchens, so we (keepers) all have our own fridges and make our food in separate places so it's where we need it to be," Wright explained.
Other birds are cool with the cold. Outdoors, Phoenix pointed to a pair of Cabot's tragopans named Couscous and Chickpea. The Chinese pheasants "have been here a few winters now, and they've been doing really well in the cold weather," she said. "You'd be amazed."
The tragopans' stone gazebo is a historic structure, customized for its latest residents with a heater they can move toward if they get too nippy. Nearby, a cluster of several vertical logs mark the beginning of an enclosure being constructed for red pandas the zoo plans to add this spring.
Phoenix said she's excited to welcome the pandas, personable creatures who enjoy interacting with people. "There's a lot of stuff that's different about them compared to other animals," she said. "They get the name 'panda' from the way their paws work. ... They're not actual, true bears."
The zoo's actual brown bears chill out during the winter. "They go into what's called torpor," said Caroline Routley, the zoo's marketing manager. "They reduce their metabolism by lowering their heart rate, and they just sleep. We feed them, still, every day."
Routley paused. "How do you feed them?" she asked Phoenix.
"You just throw it in," replied the zookeeper.
While the bears snooze, the zoo's grounds crew stays busy clearing paths for both people and animals. That's been no mean feat in a winter that broke Duluth's record for December snowfall.
"We have a very dedicated group of maintenance guys," said Phoenix. "The three of them have been diligently moving snow all winter long."
While life at the zoo is a little slower at the moment, it will ramp up again soon. The zoo is preparing to celebrate its hundredth birthday with a historical exhibit, and is also laying groundwork — conceptually, at least — for a replacement of its main building.
Among the features of the proposed new building will be expanded play space for families who want to visit the zoo on days when it's too cold to spend much time outside. With temperatures in the 20s last Wednesday, the Skube family was able to enjoy time both indoors and out.
"This is the first time we've, probably, come in the winter," said Mariya Skube. "It's nice to have some of the indoor area to be able to use, and it is kind of fun to see the winter. The wolves, (our daughter) liked to go see today."
Winter at the zoo is new to some of the animals as well: the several babies born in 2022. "We had the baby goral this year," said Phoenix, "so they had to learn how to walk in snow."