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Garden City zoo prepares for winter's chill

Published on -12/3/2012, 7:51 AM

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GARDEN CITY, Kan. (AP) -- Winter's at the doorstep, and workers at Lee Richardson Zoo in Garden City are ready to meet the cold-weather needs of more than 250 animals -- from tropical birds and African lions to pandas and snow leopards.

Preparations began in September, as staff checked to make sure heaters were functioning, vents were closed and windows and doors didn't let in drafts, zoo director Kathy Sexson told The Garden City Telegram (http://bit.ly/V9Xt0k).

Critical to many animals' well-being is ensuring they have a choice of remaining inside their barns and shelters or venturing out in the chilly air, if they wish.

For those animals, the zoo puts straw bales in the yards to provide added protection, especially from wind, Sexson said.

"It just gives an added sense of letting them be where they want to be, but not letting them freeze to death," she said.

Sexson said rheas, a type of South American flightless bird, don't experience a lot of snow in their native habitat, but they much prefer being out in the yard. She said occasionally after a snowstorm, the rheas will be in the grass, perfectly insulated from the snow by feathers.

Other animals are more fragile, she said.

"Giraffes, elephants, tropical birds we'll need to move or provide easy access in and out of their barn as weather allows," she said. "But with the birds in the aviary, we have to physically catch them and move them into a winter holding area, where they're safe regardless of what the weather does."

Giraffes and elephants sometimes do go outside over the winter, but specific criteria -- temperature, wind chill and the type of precipitation-- must be met before allowing it. Otherwise, she said, there's too great a chance of "slipping and falling."

Animal keeper Sara Niemczyk said preparing the zoo's big cats for winter normally involves providing heaters in their barns. But the zoo's African lions, despite being warm-weather cats, love being outside when it's cold, even if it's snowing.

"They actually really like it when it snows. They like to come out and play in it," she said. "It's got to be awful out for the cats not to want to be out."

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