Dallas Zoo staff get creative to help animals beat the heat

  • Zoos across the world are taking several steps to help animals beat the heat this summer
  • Besides air conditioning, Dallas Zoo is turning to water cannons, ice lollies and other cool treats
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Staff at Dallas Zoo, Texas, spraying an elephant with a water cannon to help it stay cool during the summer month. Photo: TNS

This summer has been all but unbearable for the people of North Texas – but what about the animals at the Dallas Zoo?

North Texas saw its first 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) day in mid-June, and the heat has been unrelenting since then. All but four days in July reached 100 degrees, with heat indices frequently topping 40 degrees.

The record-breaking heat has been responsible for grass fires, unprecedented electricity demand and threats to residents’ health. But it also takes a toll on animals who call the zoo home.

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Steve Metzler, a curator at the zoo, said keeping animals cool is similar to keeping people cool. Preparation for the heat begins well in advance of 30-degree days, he said.

“Obviously here in Texas, we get all four seasons, so we have to plan for the extreme cold and for the extreme heat,” he said.

Fans, evaporative coolers, portable air conditioners and misters are all added to the animals’ behind-the-scenes habitats. Most of the zoo’s public-facing habitats allow animals access to indoor areas so they can choose whether they want to remain outdoors.

Tullah, a giant anteater, takes a dip in a small pool. Zoo staff also have a sprinkler to help her stay cool during the summer months. Photo: TNS

Public-facing habitats are designed to accommodate different seasons. On a scorching day, guests might see African painted dogs, lions, tigers, anteaters and elephants lounging around in swimming pools.

In the elephant habitat, staff have the option of spraying a large water cannon to help cool animals down even further.

Other species prefer to cover themselves with mud to beat the blistering heat.

“People have heard that the animals use mud as sunscreen, but also if you get nice, cool mud packed around your skin, then it helps you stay cooler,” Metzler said. “The elephants and the wild pig species, like red river hogs and warthogs, are particularly fond of that.”

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Ice, ice baby

One of the most popular cooling methods is ice treats.

“For hippos, we’ll freeze fruit and other produce into a large, five-gallon bucket worth of water and then just toss the whole thing into their pool, and then they can push it around and play with it,” Metzler said.

In other cases, staff members have to get more creative.

“For the large carnivores we’ll actually freeze blood blocks,” Metzler said. “Somebody might like a nice cherry ice lolly – well, for a lion, it would be a blood ice lolly.”

Melati, a Sumatran tiger, licks and sniffs an ice treat in her enclosure. Photo: TNS

Simply giving some animals access to large quantities of ice cubes is enough.

“You just take a whole bunch of ice cubes and make a bed out of them out in a habitat or make a pile of them. Our gorillas, our chimps, our red river hogs … they’ll just love to just go and lay in that,” Metzler said.

How the animals use an ice treat is up to them, said Audrey Lagemann, zoological manager of elephants.

“Some elephants will eat it, stomp on it,” she said. “The warthogs might push it around and lay in it to cool down, they might break it open with their tusk to get the treats that are inside. Every animal uses it differently.”

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Constant check-ins

While most animals do well in the summer, staff are constantly monitoring for signs of overheating. “For the most part, it’s open-mouth breathing that we’re looking for, the kinds of things you’d expect from people’s cats and dogs,” Metzler said.

Zookeepers also monitor urination patterns and conduct regular checks on fecal matter to stay in tune with an animal’s health. “Even when a zookeeper is just cleaning each day, they’re actually analysing what they’re cleaning to see if there’s any sort of problems that we should be cueing in on,” Metzler said.

Zoologists preparing to throw an ice treat containing a frozen mix of Gatorade and various fruits to the hippos to help keep the animals cool. Photo: TNS

Just like with people, very young, very old or immunocompromised animals are watched more closely for signs of heat-related illness.

Some species do not mind the heat – in fact, they prefer it.

“Animals like gazelles and oryx that are from North Africa, Saharan desert areas, they’re used to getting into temperatures that are regularly above 49 degrees,” Metzler said. “While a lot of the other species are trying to find shade, some of those guys will even be just standing out like, ‘It’s only 38 [degrees], what are you talking about? We can do another five to six degrees.’”

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Other adjustments are made to help staff members manage the heat. More-strenuous work, like medical exams or grooming, are performed as early in the day as possible.

While this summer’s heatwave is intense, it’s not unprecedented. And workers at the Dallas Zoo are used to preparing for extremes in all seasons.

“I think we realise more and more that we just need to expect the unexpected,” Metzler said.

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