ERIE, Pa. — Red pandas Pumori and Simone relaxed in their outdoor exhibit at the Erie Zoo on a recent Wednesday, their rusty coats dusted in white.

The pair didn’t seem to mind the wintry combination of fluffy snowflakes and temperatures in the mid-20s, and they certainly haven’t minded the 138.6 inches of snow that had fallen on Erie this winter as of Wednesday, said Emily Walsh, director of communications for the Erie Zoo.

“Red pandas love the snow,” Walsh said. “They love when it’s chilly. They sleep outside and play in it.”

The zoo has been closed to the public since Nov. 30, the final day of the 2017 season. But even if the walkways are free of visitors, the zoo staff still has plenty of work to do, and the animals go about their business even in the cold.

Among winter weather lovers are the zoo’s two Amur leopards, Nia and Rowdy; Amur tigers Victor and Anna; Canadian lynxes Russell and Martina, and American river otters Mimi and Max. All were in for a treat when around 7 feet of snow fell from Dec. 24 to Dec. 31.

“We kept checking on their heaters to make sure everyone was OK. The animal care staff had the worst of it,” Walsh said. “They shoveled and they were the ones dealing with the mess. It was a rough couple of days for them.”

Even the animals who aren’t accustomed to snow in their natural habitats have adapted to the Erie way, Walsh added.

“The lion wouldn’t normally go in the snow, but ours will go outside when they have their nice whole area,” she said. “The animals that can’t go outside, sometimes we bring it in for them. For example, we fill up the kiddie pools with snow for the orangutans and they love to play with it. This year, the first thing Ollie did was make a snowball and throw it at Joe.”

Other animals, like Nigel, the giraffe, and Spike and Victor, the rhinos, have to stay inside their enclosures for safety’s sake.

“Just so they don’t slip and fall. We do all kinds of enrichments with them, and other animals, because they do get a little bored,” Walsh said.

Winter activities at the Erie Zoo

Activities can include puzzles and movies, among others, that animal care staff members do daily to keep animals active physically and mentally.

“Nigel loves TV, so he gets to watch different movies — ‘Madagascar,’ ‘Shrek,'” Walsh said. “He does hay puzzles and he has to lift different balls up. Those types of activities.”

This winter’s training has included a success story with Caax, the jaguar. Animal care staff members can now take his blood pressure rather easily.

“They got him trained to stick his tail underneath this barrier and they put a monitor on the end of his tail and are able to take it that way,” Walsh said.

Training is vital for the zoo’s animals for medical reasons.

“Anytime we can avoid administering any sort of drug or anesthesia to do simple procedures, it’s so much less stressful on the animal,” Walsh said. “Our animal care staff does this all year round, but we are able to focus on and do it more frequently and regularly during the winter months.”

Regina Snyder, an animal care staff member who works with reptiles, has spent the winter training the zoo’s newly-acquired red tail boa, Gato. Gato is 11 feet long and weighs about 20 pounds. Snyder has worked with him to prepare him for reptile shows.

“He hasn’t been used in programs for about two years so we’ve been working to get him used to it again,” she said. “We had a volunteer party and 40-plus people got to pet him, which is something he’s never done before.”

Snyder worked alongside animal care staff member Darren Julius in the Kiboka Outpost Wednesday as he remodeled some of the reptile exhibits that will be installed in the Adventure Center by the time the zoo reopens in March.

“It (winter) is a time where we get to think about redesigning exhibits and doing research,” Julius said. “I’ve also been involved with landscaping when the weather permits, especially for the lion exhibit.”

The zoo has nearly finished a $700,000 renovation of the lion exhibit, which started in July.

Construction was temporarily halted because of the record snowfall, but the exhibit will be ready by the time it reopens, Walsh said. It will be the new home for the zoo’s 19-year-old female lioness, Nala, and two new lionesses.

“We’re still working on introducing them,” she said. “It’s a slow process.”

The zoo will reopen for the season March 1. A grand opening March 3 will include free admission, sponsored by UPMC Health Plan, and other special activities.

Zoo memberships are available now, Walsh said.

“This year, we’re doing OK so far. Sales will really depend on what kind of spring we have, weather-wise,” she said. “We’re hoping for the best.”


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Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com

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SARAH GRABSKI, Erie Times-News
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