When snow runs the zoo

Pamela Crimbchin

Local zookeepers discuss how exotic animals adapt to winter conditions

Credit: DKS Editors

Credit: DKS Editors

Photos by Caitlin Sirse | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

While Kent State students are planning vacations to escape from the wintery conditions, exotic animals in Ohio zoos face conditions that differ from their natural habitats. The Akron and Columbus zoos are home to many tropical animals that in the wild would be spending their winter season sunbathing on the beach or roaming sun-kissed fields. Both the Akron and Columbus zoos belong to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. This organization and the zoo itself help keep animals comfortable and well-adjusted, whether it’s 20 or 70 degrees outside.

Galapagos giant tortoise

The Galapagos Islands are located west of Ecuador, South America along the equator. Because the set of islands lies by itself away from the main land, ocean currents control the Galapagos weather.

The tortoises on the island are accustomed to only two seasons: a warm, wet season and a cool, dry season.

According to Akron zookeeper Pete Mohan, if a tortoise is cold in the wild it will burrow down in the ground.

“If it gets extremely cold (in the wild) they can burrow down into the ground where it gets a little warmer and wetter.”

At the Akron Zoo, the tortoise burrows as far as it can into the bedding provided. The tortoise remains outside until the weather gets to be about 55 to 60 degrees. After the temperature drops below that, the zookeepers pull them inside for a nice, warm, cozy winter under heat lamps on a heated floor, even though reptiles can adapt to a colder climate.

“Even in places like Africa it does occasionally get cold at night, and they need to be able to adapt to that,” Mohan said. “Their metabolism just slows down at night, and as soon as the sun comes out, they go sleep in the sun, warm themselves up and become more active again.”

African Lion

The king of the jungle, the lion, now lives mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. While this area is not known for its snow days, that doesn’t stop the African lions from enjoying the occasional run around in the northeast Ohio snow.

“They actually enjoy going out in the snow,” Mohan said. “They love it.”

At the Akron Zoo, the lions have an outside living area as well as an inside living space. In the winter months, the Akron Zoo keeps careful watch on the weather before deciding if the lions’ door should be opened or not.

If it is not too cold or snowy outside, the lion’s door is open allowing them to play in the snow and go inside to get warm as they please during the day.

“We actually shovel paths for them to get around,” Mohan said. “They have bigger rocks and logs they like to sit on, and we’ll actually shovel pathways between all those places, so not only can we clean the exhibit, but they can go out and sit where they like to sit.”

Mohan said that lions have the natural ability to deal with harsher winter climates.

“Lions used to have a much larger range,” Mohan said. “Lions were found in Northern Greece on a mountain that is now a ski resort.”

Madagascar hissing cockroaches

Hissing cockroaches can be found on the island of Madagascar. While they were not featured in the Disney film, hissing coaches are very common on the island and in pet stores.

“They are a very large roach, a couple inches long,” Mohan said. “They don’t move very fast, so they don’t scuttle like the German cockroaches or American cockroaches do. So they are easy to handle.”

Madagascar is just off the west coast of Africa. Its climate is controlled by the Southeast trade winds, which gives it a two-season climate similar to that of the Galapagos Islands.

The hissing cockroaches at the Akron Zoo, however, only have one season, which is 70 to 80 degrees all year round.

“They are not outside ever,” Mohan said. “They are always inside in a controlled environment.”

The hissing cockroaches are part of the zoo’s education program and, therefore, travel around to different areas. The cockroaches hiss in the wild to attract mates and ward off predators, but Mohan had said that’s rare in captivity.

“We don’t actually hear it very much,” Mohan said. “Since they are education animals they are used to being handled, so they really don’t hiss for us.”


The Akron Zoo doesn’t have any large primates, but they do have gibbons, which is a close relative. Gibbons are small monkeys that can be found in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia is famous for its dense tropical rainforest. The gibbon’s extra long arms help it maneuver from tree to tree throughout the rainforest.

The gibbon’s natural tropical climate keeps it from swinging from branch to branch outside the zoo during the winter.

At the Akron Zoo the gibbons are allowed outside only if it is above 50 degrees and sunny.

“There is a little door that goes into their indoor enclosure, and we just leave it open, that way if they want to come inside they can,” Mohan said.

Aldabra giant tortoise

The Columbus Zoo has turtles very similar to that of the Galapagos tortoise: the Aldabra giant tortoise.

Aldabra is a small island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa that is very rocky and grassy with few trees. The climate is tropical, even though it is barren and rugged.

The three tortoises at the zoo – Bubba, Sonny and Daisy – weigh between 270 and 520 pounds. In the winter they have two separate rooms they can roam in. That way if the zookeepers wish to separate them, they can.

“We keep them indoors because they wouldn’t survive outside,” said Jeff Dawson, zookeeper for the Columbus Zoo. “We keep it nice and warm and humid in there for them.”

The tortoises are only let outside in the winter if it is above 55 degrees and extremely sunny.

“Because they are cold-blooded, if we let them out and it’s too cold, they could become ill and possibly even die,” Dawson said.


Unlike lions, jaguars are from a more tropical area in South America called Costa Rica.

Costa Rica’s climate, like many tropical islands, is controlled by trade winds. While these trade winds do cause two seasons, the temperature in Costa Rica remains 71 to 80 degrees year round, perfect for a jaguar to lounge in the sun.

The jaguars’ love for tropical weather keeps them indoors all winter at the Akron Zoo.

“Whereas most cats like going outside, the jaguars are not suited for that, so they have a temperature limit on them,” Mohan said.

Jaguars also have a shorter coat than most cats, making them more vulnerable to colder weather.