Simply beastly weather

Coping: At the zoo, the animals seemed to have an easier time than their human caretakers.

February 19, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Never mind that snow leopards are supposed to revel in this weather. This one, recently arrived from San Antonio, ventured outside for a minute into the snow and ran back into his enclosure.

"He is a Texas boy, and he just hates it," said one of his keepers, Tanya White.

The animals around the Baltimore Zoo at Druid Hill Park were coping with snow about as well as the humans outside: Some loved it, some seemed annoyed, and others were going a bit stir-crazy.

The bobcats were having a blast, climbing up the sides of their cages and stealthily hunting the wild birds that had come to scavenge for food in their cages. Feathers littered the snow.

The smaller cats, called caracals, found themselves falling through the snowy crust.

And the prairie dogs? They seemed to think it was time to burrow in for a good long nap until this thing blows over.

Most of the zoo's inhabitants were kept inside during the storm, in part because the staff worried about their safety, said Steven J. Sarro, a zoo curator.

Pink flamingos are usually happy in cold weather, but the staff didn't want them to get hurt in such deep snow. "Obviously, a broken flamingo leg is pretty serious," said Beth Benner, director of capital projects.

So the flamingos flocked together inside a small concrete building, warm and safe, but not entirely happy. They snapped at one another and their feathers stood up on their backs, a sign of aggression.

Even the polar bears, the quintessential snowy-weather animal, were left indoors for fear that they would use the ice patches on their pool to climb over the wall of their cages. Nobody wanted a polar bear on the loose.

But their keepers cut them a break and shoveled snow into their house. The rolled happily, and will likely make it out today.

The penguins had to be inside, too. "They can handle the temperatures, but they don't understand what ice is," Sarro said.

African penguins live in very cold water off the coast of Africa, but their environment doesn't include ice. Sarro feared they might get caught beneath ice in their pool and drown. The staff didn't have time to break up the ice.

Inside, in close quarters, the penguins have to be watched closely for fighting and signs of aggression.

"It is like dealing with a bunch of kids. Sometimes, you have to separate them and give them a little timeout," Sarro said.

Stuck at the zoo

Keeping all the animals fed and safe required a staff of 28 people, many of whom spent from early Sunday to yesterday morning at the zoo.

Yesterday, the mansion that is used for administrative offices was littered with sleeping bags, pillows and damp clothes. Some people had spent the night on the floor in work cubicles, others were in the president's office.

Videos and late-night games of Scrabble had been their entertainment, hot dogs from the concession stand their only hot meal.

A veterinarian drove from near Pittsburgh to work. A horticulture staff worker, Maurice Smith, walked 12 miles so that he could help clear paths through the snow to the animals.

"It has been an unbelievable team effort," Benner said.

Riding out the storm

People began arriving at the zoo at 6 a.m. Sunday to begin an early feeding, but three hours later, it became clear that the keepers and staff might not make it back into work Monday if they left. So they decided to get essential staff dug in for the storm.

"Every towel I own, every pillow I own, every blanket I own got thrown in a plastic bag," Benner said.

Someone went to the Giant at the Rotunda and bought as much food as could be carried back to the administration building. Others drove to pick up employees who couldn't get in.

Getting to the animals

The biggest challenge was making sure the keepers could get to the animals. This meant not just plowing the walkways around the zoo, but digging small paths that lead to each animal's building and even inside. It took Sarro an hour to dig his way to the elephants Monday.

And the snowblowers kept breaking, and so staff members spent hours welding pieces back together.

New faces began arriving yesterday afternoon as the 48-hour shift began leaving.

"How are you?" a zoo staff member shouted across the snow to Sarro. "Cold, tired, wet and kind of hairy," he said, his sense of humor and a growing beard still intact.

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