Creature comforts for winter of contentment

CHARLIE MITCHELL
Last updated 10:58 06/08/2014
Rokan the tiger
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ
SPECIAL TREATMENT: Rokan the tiger gets his own panel heater during the colder months, while chimpanzees snuggle up with underfloor heating.

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If you are the type who grumbles when the temperature plunges, spare a thought for the animals at Wellington Zoo.

For giraffes from the plains of Africa, or lizards from the Australian desert, a brisk Wellington winter can be a shock.

So how does the zoo guard its animals from the elements?

No, staff don't wrap the giraffes in enormous scarves, or wrestle the sun bears into onesies.

Sam the chimp wears a blanket as a cape, but he is an exception.

It involves a careful combination of measures, including bedding, diet and exercise, says zoo life science manager Dave French.

Giraffes have their own secret hideout away from the crowds and their habitat-mates.

Panel heaters - just like ones you have at home - cover the huge, giraffe-sized walls, and are constantly pumping, turning the room into a giraffe sauna.

Primates, including the chimpanzees and lemurs, have underfloor heating strategically placed around their habitat.

When the chimps are not swinging around or building straw nests up high, they can curl up in little heated caves hidden from the wind.

During August, the zoo's Winter Wednesday promotion allows guests to deliver porridge and blankets to the chimps, which they also use to stave off the cold.

This winter, in particular, has required special measures, French says. "This season just changed really quickly. It suddenly became very cold. The animals didn't really have that transition time to acclimatise to it."

For the otters, this has meant microwavable heat pads, which are hidden under slats in their enclosures. The ageing otters have not been swimming as much either. Like people, older animals are vulnerable to the weather.

They sometimes get special attention - Rokan, the zoo's oldest tiger, gets his own panel heater.

All animals receive bedding, usually made from materials such as shredded paper. Some species, particularly the ones that eat their bedding, such as lions, are given straw. It is less of a problem for social animals, such as kangaroos, who tend to huddle in groups.

For more natural protection from the cold, some animals are on calibrated winter diets.

"We definitely up the weight or the frequency of their feeds over winter so they carry more body weight," French says.

"The bigger animals burn a lot of energy keeping warm, so it's important to balance that out."

Not all the animals come from the sweltering desert or the humid rainforest. Red pandas, used to the icy Himalayas, are the zoo's most well-equipped occupants for the frigid conditions.

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They mock our winters and turn up their snouts at bedding.

Lions are hardy and designed for the huge swings in temperature on the savannah. They often forgo their bedding to lounge on rocks - even snow in 2011 could not compel one lioness indoors, leaving her covered in snow.

The real challenge comes with the reptiles, who need to have a perfectly calibrated environment.

Each enclosure is equipped with a heat lamp and a UV light, creating a microclimate replicating their native habitat.

- Wellington

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Related story: Sun takes a Christmas holiday

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