Weather not fit for man or beast just ask the zoo

February 17, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The elephants are getting cabin fever.

"All this ice," Brian Rutledge, director of the Baltimore Zoo, was saying yesterday, gazing from a window and hoping the sun and the elevating temperatures would finally begin to melt some of his surroundings. "We don't dare let the elephants outside. It's not a sight you want to see, an elephant slipping on ice. You have to get a boom crane to get them back up."

The rhinos are eating like mad (even by rhino standards) and not even worrying about their classically svelte figures.

"In real cold weather," says Rutledge, "you have to build up the animals' caloric intake. We give them more fat than usual. It takes energy to stay warm, and the energy comes from the food."

The monkeys are hoping the heating holds up.

"Trying to keep the furnaces going," says Rutledge, "is our biggest difficulty. Especially during that really bad cold snap. We've been working literally every furnace in the zoo. But a lot of it is aged machinery. So we've had a run for our money, trying to keep ahead of the cold. We've got staff staying here overnight just to check the temperature inside the buildings."

You think you've had weather problems, bunky? Try making your way across the various hills and valleys and enclosures of the Baltimore Zoo, and tending to the care and feeding of its 402 mammals, its 658 birds, its 181 reptiles, its 38 amphibians, its 243 invertebrates.

Or, to put it in English, its lions and tigers and bears.

On ice.

Try doing what Karen Fulton did. She's the zoo's assistant curator of mammals. Her husband, Steve, is a farrier, which means he puts shoes on horses. Steve took a couple of used horseshoes and put them on the bottom of Karen's shoes, so she could clomp around on the zoo's snow and ice without falling on her whatevers.

Or Sandra Kempske. She's curator of mammals. She put slip-on snow treads over her sneakers to make her way over the zoo's hazardous areas. (Those golf carts normally used by staff to get around the zoo? Forget 'em. The hills are too slippery and, anyway, Rutledge says we live in times that are far too litigious to fool with golf carts on ice.)

And, if you think your problems are tough, think of all those employees who somehow made it to the zoo when thousands of the rest of us were calling the boss to say, "Sorry. Snowed in. See you in the spring." Somehow, they've been there every day, having almost as tough a time once they get there as they did on the roads coming in.

"Our critical staff," Rutledge says, "has been wonderful. Getting to work has been miserable, but they've done it. They know they've got to feed the animals, and care for them, and do it on time. Several have had car accidents, fortunately minor. Several have fallen and injured themselves. But they're here, they're working."

In Rutledge's 13 years at the zoo, he's never seen a winter such as this. In his previous dozen years, the zoo was never closed to the public for more than three days at a stretch. He's exceeded that this winter. In fact, the zoo's already lost a total of three weeks of visitation this winter.

"The animals are aware of all of this," says Rutledge, meaning both the weather and the lack of visitors.

Many animals have to stay indoors, and thus miss the chance to exercise. When this happens, some get a little edgy. Fractious, Rutledge calls it. They need to burn off energy.

"Some of them," Rutledge says, "practically beg to be outside. Just like humans build up all this energy, which we call cabin fever, they do, too. And they can't burn it off, and so there's a lot of playing in the stalls."

The tropical animals need extra attention in the cold. But the bears and the big cats seem to be adapting well. The arctic foxes, finding a touch of home in the frigidity, seem to be enjoying it all.

"All the animals," says Rutledge, "love to see the sun come out. They love to lay in it, to bask in it. During the bad stretch, they just wanted shelter. They wanted a break from the wind. Our job is to be super careful with them. Like their water. It freezes. They can't get by eating just snow and ice. So we have to work hard to give them warm places and thawed water."

And, in the process, say a few prayers that the temperature goes up, and the snow and ice melt away.

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