Accessibility links

Zoo Protects Animals from Weather

  • Deborah Block

It’s been a cold winter across much of the United States and while humans can put on coats to bundle up, animals in zoos need to be protected, both from the freezing temperatures and heat in the summer.

Some animals, however, enjoy being out in the wintry weather, like the three giant pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington. When baby Bao Bao discovered snow for the first time in January, she happily tumbled down a hill in her enclosure and had fun pouncing on her mother in the snow.

Don Moore, senior scientist for the zoo’s conservation programs, said the pandas, with their big layer of fat and heavy coats, “love to romp in the snow.” They are able to tolerate Washington’s chilly winters and hot, humid summers because the temperatures are similar to their native environment in the misty mountains of China. “It gets very cold in the wintertime, and it gets between 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit [21-29 degrees Celsius] in the summertime," said Moore.

The zoo’s outside enclosure is designed to be similar to their natural habitat in China, with rocks, water and bamboo, the mainstay of the pandas’ diet.

A bamboo thicket also offers protection when it’s hot. “In the summertime, those trees give shade,” Moore said. “Then there are pools outside. We give them ice blocks in the summertime,” he added.

There is even an air conditioner in an opening in the rocks where the pandas can enjoy a cool breeze.

But all year round, the animals can go into their indoor enclosure, which is climate controlled and keeps them at a comfortable 15-21 degrees Celsius.

The seals and sea lions are made for cold water. But just in case they want to warm up, the zoo has heated rocks and beaches in their pools, which also prevents ice from forming.

Some lions and tigers, Moore said, have adapted to both hot and cold temperatures in the wild, and those at the zoo can withstand cooler temperatures. They have heated dens outside but are brought inside the Large Mammal Building once the temperature goes down to 6 degrees Celsius.

The Asian elephants prefer warmer conditions but can maintain their body heat even when it’s cold. Tall shade structures in an outdoor yard also contain boxes with heaters. “Elephants can stand up on their hind legs and reach up about 20 feet [6 meters], so we protect those radiant heaters with a protective box,” Moore explained.

A large indoor barn keeps the elephants comfortable no matter what it’s like outside, with both heat and air conditioning. Ceiling panels filter the sunlight so the animals don’t get too hot. Skylights and the barn doors can be opened to provide fresh air. A unique geothermal piping system under the sand-covered floor maintains a constant temperature of 70 degrees (21 degrees Celsius). Moore explained, “that’s for the elephants’ benefit. It's good for their foot and joint health.”

And if the elephants get hot, they can take a dip in their indoor pool or even take a shower by stepping on a metal plate that releases water overhead, Moore said. “The water coming out of the shower is tempered so it’s not too cold or warm. It’s just right.”