Oglebay’s Good Zoo Bids Farewell to Old Man Winter

WHEELING-Old Man Winter wore out his welcome at Oglebay’s Good Zoo.

The zoo may be closed to the public from January to March but the animals still need food, water and shelter from winter elements every day.

People know to bring their household pets indoors during those bitter cold days and nights, but what do you do if you have more than 200 critters to protect?

Mindi White, manager of animal husbandry at the facility, said zookeepers must take special precautions to keep the animals warm and safe during severe weather.

“This winter has been the worst in recent memory,” White said. “We moved the swan, our crane and raptors inside during the coldest nights. Tropical animals are kept inside heated buildings.”

Even the animals that like the cold and snow, such as red panda and river otters, always have access to their indoor shift areas in cold weather. Ice is always a bigger concern than snow.

“Hoof stock, ostrich and kangaroos can slip and splay on the ice and damage their tendons, so even though they like a sunny winter day outside, we have keep them in if the exhibits are icy,” zoo director Penny Miller said. “We drain pools that might freeze over, to protect the animals from cracking through the ice and falling into the water, and also to protect the glass and integrity of the pool structure.”

She said tropical animal buildings have built in temperature sensors, so if the heat or power goes off in the building, it communicates with computers at the Wilson Lodge front desk, and zoo staff get paged at home in the middle of the night.

“We have gasoline-powered generators we can hook up to run all critical heaters and fish pumps during a power failure, because many animals just can’t be relocated-but they can’t go a night without heat,” White said. “Keeping our animals safe in the winter is top priority with the animal care staff, and the maintenance, IT and security staffs really support our efforts to give us the resources we need.”

Headkeeper Susan Greathouse said the feeding task can be challenging during the winter.

“No matter what, the animals have to have food and water,” she said. “On those days when the snow prevents us from driving zoo vehicles, we carry the food by hand or use snow sleds as transport vehicles.”

Miller said pet owners should take equal care with domesticated animals.

“Snowfall can affect an animal’s scenting ability to find their way home,” she said. “Be careful when changing anti-freeze, or with a car leaking anti-freeze. Dogs and cats like the taste but ethylene glycol causes kidney failure and death in animals that lap it up. Outdoor cats can climb up into a parked car’s warm engine and fall asleep, so honk the horn before starting the engine if cats roam the neighborhood; every winter cats are injured in engine fan belts.”

She said access to unfrozen water is absolutely critical for all animals.

“If an animal has to eat snow to get hydrated, it will become hypothermic and dehydrated,” Miller said. “Animals outside in the winter don’t even like to drink really cold water under 40 or 45 degrees, and animals such as horses will drink less water if it is below 40 degrees, which leads to impaction and colic. At the zoo, and home on the farm, we use water trough heaters and automatic frost-free waters that keep the water from freezing.”

There are a lot of safety issues involved with keeping animals warm.

White said heat bulb lamps have been banned from the zoo because of too many near misses with things melting or almost catching fire because animals move bedding around or knock lamps and heaters over.

Bedding is critical too, according to Miller.

“Lying on cold ground, tile, metal or concrete surfaces pulls heat from the animal,” she said. “They need to be laying on old carpet, rubber matting or deep straw bedding, or warming mats.”

White said the he zoo’s African wild dogs and pot-bellied pigs love their warming mats.

“You don’t need to heat the entire building, just create some warm zones with bedded denning areas to trap the animal’s body heat, a good radiant heater or warming mat, fresh water and good nutrition,” she said.

A staff of three zookeepers, a manager and a headkeeper takes care of business during the winter but as many as 20 interns are on board when the zoo opens for weekends only in March and then daily in April.

“The zoo offers a great opportunity for our interns,” Greathouse said. “Many are veterinarian students who gain valuable job experience here.”

The zoo staff is looking forward to spring when the grounds come alive with new life and growth.