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July 22, 2013

Detroit Zoo’s keepers have ways to keep animals cool, active

By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer

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Detroit Zoo’s keepers have ways to keep animals cool, active
Nuka, a polar bear, jumps into a pool to go after a cylindrical block of frozen fish and carrots. While ensuring the animals stay cool, zookeepers also try to ensure they stay active.
A snow monkey at the Detroit Zoo works to get to the fruity core of an ice block July 17. Because they have to work in order to get to their frozen food, the animals stay mentally stimulated.
 

ROYAL OAK — A blurred silhouette of Nuka, the Detroit Zoo’s 8-year-old polar bear, could be seen from the exhibit’s underwater tunnel.

Suddenly, the water above the visitors was displaced. Waves and bubbles pressed against the tunnel’s glass surface. Then Nuka’s long snout and gaping mouth emerged — his teeth clenching a cylindrical chunk of frozen fish and carrots.

He emerged on the surface, sitting atop a small island in the sunlight while clawing and chewing at the ice to get to his food.

On muggy, torrid days like the ones metro Detroit saw the week of July 15, the icy snack is one way the zookeepers — who watch over species indigenous to both warm and cold parts of the globe — keep fur-covered animals cool and active.

“We make sure to put things in the pool to encourage him, if it is a really hot day, to come in the pool,” said Elizabeth Arbaugh, the zoo’s curator of animal welfare, while watching Nuka’s underbelly from the tunnel as he swam away.

At the zoo, it’s all about enriching the animals — stimulating them mentally and physically even during the hot days.

“Everybody has temperature guidelines that the veterinarians determine are appropriate, and we follow them very strictly,” she said. “But if we can give them freedom to make choices, we’d rather do that.”

The easiest way to do that is by freezing the animals’ snacks, creating a slight barrier for them to go through to get to their food.

“It’s a pretty common enrichment tactic,” said Brett Kipley, a zookeeper for mammals. “It takes them a while to work through it before it melts.”

At the snow monkey exhibit, Megan Sanderson, the primate zookeeper, tosses frozen watermelons into their pit.

Coming from a cold climate, the monkeys have thick, coarse hair that insulates them during the winter but acts as an oven during the summer.

“These hot days are kind of hard for them, and we have to work extra hard for them to make sure they stay cool,” Sanderson said.

Not only does Sanderson have to battle the climate, but also during the really hot days, she battles the hierarchal system within the monkey exhibit — which is exasperated by the heat. She has to walk around the entire pit’s perimeter to ensure all the monkeys get a chance to eat, no matter their order in the hierarchy.

“Just like you and I get a little irritable on these hot days, the same goes for these guys,” she said. “I have to keep walking when I feed to make sure the lower-ranking animals get as much a chance to eat as the higher-ranking animals.”

Aside from the icy treats, the monkeys’ pit has plenty of shade and water.

“It’s almost more unbearable for us to be here watching them than it is for them to be in there living,” Sanderson joked.

In addition, keepers can bring in sprinklers that the animals can sit under during the summer’s hottest days.

But as much as the keepers desire to leave the animals with options, there are some days — particularly during the Michigan winters — where the animal’s welfare overrides activity.

“For giraffes, if it’s February and there’s two feet of snow and it’s icy out, we are going to leave them in the building,” Arbaugh said.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Robert Guttersohn at rguttersohn@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5006.