You can’t feed a hippo from home.
Unlike many area residents who worked from home during this week’s snowstorm, Sedgwick County Zoo staff members were out braving freezing temperatures and bone-chilling wind on Wednesday to feed and tend to creatures large and small.
Steam poured off of zookeeper Brian Helten’s head as he removed his stocking cap after shoveling snow in front of the North American river otter exhibit. Starting the day wearing two shirts, a sweatshirt, long underwear, khaki pants, insulated socks, two pairs of gloves and coveralls, Helten was plenty warm despite it being only 8 degrees.
“You learn to layer,” he said.
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Zookeepers trudge through snow, fight frozen locks and gates and have to go on poop patrol in frigid weather. It’s all part of the job, Helten said.
“Our job is to make sure these animals are comfortable year-round,” he said.
Some animals go off exhibit. On Wednesday, for example, the zoo’s painted dogs, zebras and warthogs were not to be seen. Neither were the meerkats, slender-horned gazelles or Arabian oryx.
The giraffes, rhinos, elephants and hippos were hanging out in their barns, viewable only from inside.
The zoo’s two river otters, though, paid no mind to the cold. They dived into the 40-degree water for fresh fish, emerging with icy whiskers.
“They have thick, lush coats,” Helten said. “They’re very well-adapted to cold climates.”
Zookeeper Erin Melroy, who also works in the North America exhibit, fed alfalfa to bison Boomer and Pawnee. The bison ambled slowly toward her, their breath visible, eager for their favorite tasty treat.
“I don’t even think they feel the cold,” Melroy said.
Not falling down on ice and snow is one of the biggest challenges as a zookeeper in the winter, Melroy said.
“You also kind of play hide-and-seek with poo,” she said. “Where is it?”
Keepers follow footprints to find it, she said. Even though it’s cold, keepers still have to scoop the poop.
At the Slawson Family Tiger Trek, Talali played in the snow with her two cubs, Tsar and Natasha, which were born in July.
Zookeepers built snowmen for the Amur tigers, using bamboo for the arms. These were not your ordinary snowmen, though.
Zookeepers sprayed them with Lady Stetson, a scent the tigers love. The snowmen’s eyes and mouths were made of cinnamon, another favorite scent.
“They’re really enjoying it,” said African Veldt zookeeper Jody Sentel as she was watching the tigers play with one of the snowmen. “I’m surprised the snowman is holding up as well as he is.”
Talali, Tsar and Natasha pawed at the snowman, getting up on their hind legs and wrapping their front paws around it until Natasha finally knocked it over.
The three tigers then gathered to eat the snow from their frozen, fallen Frosty.