Happy polar bears, secret heat lamps: A chilly scene at local zoos

SEATTLE - Frigid temperatures and the threat of snow have kept people in Western Washington pretty busy lately, including the staff at both Woodland Park Zoo and Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium - whose job it is to make sure dozens of animals and their exhibits remain comfortable and safe during inclement weather.

"For animals less cold-tolerant when it gets below 40 degrees, give or take, we tend to either keep them in their indoor holding areas, or depending on the species or the other weather conditions, we give them access and they can choose," says Nancy Hawkes, general curator of Woodland Park Zoo.

Dealing with cold and rain is obviously nothing new for Woodland Park Zoo, but it is something the staff keeps a very close eye on, not just for the sake of the animals but also for the safety of zoo visitors.

"Our lions have not been on exhibit the last few days not because they can't tolerate the temperatures but because the water feature in their exhibit has frozen over," Hawkes says. "It's part of their containment, so perhaps they could get out of their containment if they were allowed to go outside."

A number of exhibits at Woodland Park have heated features that help control the climate for the animals but also allow certain species to spend more time in their outdoor exhibits during the winter months. The jaguar exhibit is a good example of this, Hawkes says.

"The jaguars can hang out in their alcove where guests can get right up to the animals and see them through glass because they have a heated floor," she says.

Anytime the temperature drops below 40 degrees, Woodland Park doesn't take any chances with its aging animals or its new babies. The zoo welcomed a new baby giraffe in August, but Hawkes says it's still too small to be out on the savannah, especially right now.

"There could be icy patches out there, and we wouldn't want him to slip on one of those," she says.

Woodland Park isn't alone in taking certain precautions against winter weather elements. Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium has similar procedures in place for its animals and exhibits.

"The animals not as habituated to the cold weather have secret little built in heaters in a number of exhibits to keep them warm," says Karen Goodrowe Beck, general curator for Point Defiance.

At Point Defiance in Tacoma, arctic species account for an estimated 30 percent of the zoo's population, making this time of year a winter paradise for the polar bears, wolves, and arctic fox. Goodrowe Beck says while the chilly weather lends itself well to these cold-weather species, the zoo has also noticed some interesting behavior among some of its other animals which the staff hadn't seen until now.

"We have a little serval - a small cat from Africa - and he went outside into an area that had ice in the pond, and we found that he likes picking up pieces of ice and gathering it," Goodrowe Beck says. "It's pretty cute."

She says Point Defiance drains many of its ponds after the summer to help cut down on any ice issues that may occur during the winter.

Aside from offering their animals cold-weather relief, both Woodland Park and Point Defiance offer visitors a number of indoor exhibits to enjoy.

"Out tropical rain forest is very warm, almost sauna-like," Hawkes says. "Then we have our day house - where most of our reptile collection is; those buildings house animals that come from warmer climates. It's always warm and pretty busy on cold, wet days."

This Saturday, Point Defiance is holding its Arctic Animal Play Day. Visitors are invited to check out the zoo's arctic animals and learn how they can help their wild counterparts through a number of indoor and outdoor activities.