North Dakota zoo visitors get different experience in winter

February 25, 2019
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In this Feb. 6, 2019 photo, a sign points to the visitors center at the Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, N.D. The zoo is open during the winter months, weather permitting. (Eloise Ogden/Minot Daily News via AP)

MINOT, N.D. (AP) — The river otters have a ball sliding in the fresh snow as Amur tigers, snow and Amur leopards are outside getting some sun.

They’re among a number of animals that can be seen outdoors in the winter at Minot’s Roosevelt Park Zoo. Besides the Visitor Center, the aviary and Discovery Barn are also open.

This is the third winter Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot has been open to visitors, weather permitting. A number of visitors use the time as a chance to enjoy that experience of wintertime at the zoo.

Becky Dewitz, zoo director, said that in the fall of 2016 the decision was made to offer winter hours on weekdays and Saturdays.

“We started from 10 (a.m.) to 3 (p.m.) mainly because it doesn’t warm up until close to noon and then by 3 it starts to get chilly so we wanted to make sure our keepers’ safety was accounted for as well and get the animals in where it is warm,” she told Minot Daily News.

Those days and hours have continued for the zoo’s openings during the winter months, weather permitting.

“People really enjoy coming here in the wintertime,” Dewitz said. “I think especially after a long cold stint they really want to get outside so it’s been good in the sense the people that come here are very excited to be here and they want to have that exposure to nature in wintertime and see the animals. And the animals do behave differently in wintertime as well.”

The zoo’s North American animals tend to be more active in the winter, Dewitz said.

“The wolves are definitely very active, the otters love fresh snow — they’ll play and toboggan down on their belly in the fresh snow, the camels do quite well when they’re outside too,” she said.

She said the zoo’s camels are Bactrian (two-hump) camels — Asiatic camels that in their native land live in the high elevations of the Himalayas.

“They’re actually very accustomed to very dry areas and cold temperatures. A lot of times our public comes in and when they think camel, they think Africa. Our camels thrive in the wintertime. Actually in the summer we have to give them special consideration to keep them cool,” she said.

When people think of penguins they often think of winter and cold, Dewitz said.

“But there’s 17 subspecies of penguins and only about half of them live in the Antarctic region. The rest of them live in some warmer areas. We have African penguins and that is why you don’t see them in the wintertime. They are in their indoor enclosure.”

The zoo’s llamas and alpacas are out in the wintertime, and the Japanese serows and big cats, with the exception of the African lions, do quite well in the winter as well, she said.

“The snow leopards, the Amur leopards and the Amur tigers are all cold weather species. If we’re open to the public, they’ll be out. We do have temperature considerations for them but anytime that we are open and that temperature feels like zero, they’ll be out,” she said.

The red pandas also do well in the wintertime, according to Dewitz.

“We give them access to the indoors obviously so they have that choice and control of their environment to be able to come in so they don’t get too cold,” she said.

She said the zoo’s bears don’t go into hibernation but go into what is called torpor.

“They do slow down in the wintertime,” she said. Sometimes the bears can be seen outside in their area at the zoo on winter days.

“In terms of indoor buildings for people to view in the wintertime, the aviary is a wonderful area to go in the wintertime. We’ve been doing a lot of enhancements to the aviary,” Dewitz said.

She said the lighting system has been changed to make it a better environment for plants to thrive in the building.

“Our intention is to create an oasis so regardless of it being cold and wintry now you can have a nice place to see the plants, hear the birds and provide yourself a little bit of reprieve from the winter,” she said.

The Discovery Barn with North Dakota native animals is also open on the north side of the zoo.

Inside the Visitors Center people can see tamarins (small monkeys) and some of the zoo’s inhabitants in the outreach program — Russian tortoise, Kenyan sand boa and Chilean rose tarantula.

“The okapi has glass viewing to see him in his indoor area,” Dewitz said. This gives year-round viewing for visitors to see the relative of the giraffes.

“We understand our seasonal fluctuations in North Dakota so we have to plan appropriately to accommodate in the summertime that animals can cool off and in the wintertime that animals can be warm so many of our exhibits are designed with a dual heat source just so that you have a primary and a backup in case something does fail. We do have generators as well to help if we were to have a power failure,” Dewitz said.

The zoo’s inhabitants are cared for every day of the year.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s rain, snow or shine or Christmas Day, we have staff here,” Dewitz said. “We do take considerations for winter preparations like when we have a storm. We have sleds for the staff to use to haul materials and food if they can’t drive because snow removal is obviously one of the largest obstacles for any of us in North Dakota and the accessibility.”

The Forestry Department does the snow removal in the interior of the zoo and the zoo’s maintenance staff does the parking lot. Zoo staff also assists with snow removal.

“It’s a concerted effort for everybody to get involved and remove the snow,” Dewitz said.

She said they are very appreciative of their support services.

“Our gratitude to our Forestry and Maintenance for all their help to keep the zoo open for the wintertime but also to our Horticulture Department because our horticulturist’s (Shannon Paul) and her attention to the aviary — its dramatic the change over there,” Dewitz said.

Zoo staff members do a great deal to stimulate the animals during the winter months. Spoons might be hanging in the area for the camels so the camels can play with the spoons, Dewitz said.

“We have pulleys inside our giraffe barn that allows us to hang enrichment to their height and that helps significantly to keep them enriched — keep them happy during those long winter hours as well,” Dewitz said. “Behavioral training is critical in terms of keeping the animals stimulated and happy. The behavioral training is very important for our husbandry management and our veterinarian program but in addition to that it increases that bond between zookeeper and zoo animals and it enriches the lives of both.”


Information from: Minot Daily News, http://www.minotdailynews.com