Henry Vilas Zoo workers keep eye on weather, provide ways for animals to stay cool

The heat means taking special precautions for animals, and not just pets at home.

Workers at the Henry Vilas Zoo are making sure the residents there are staying cool in weather they say is becoming more extreme.

“This is a cool experience,” visitor Kimberle Kuhlman said. “I’ve come here since I was a kid.”

It’s a cool experience on a very hot day, and Kuhlman and her group were feeling it. But they’re finding ways to combat the sun, just like the animals they were there to see.

“Finding shade once in a while,” Kuhlman said. “Drinking a lot of water.”

“One of the first things keepers do in the morning when they go in is check out every animal on the grounds to make sure they’re doing well,” said Jess Thompson, the zoo’s conservation education curator.

From shady spots to frozen treats, zoo workers provide animals with ways to stay cool.

“We like to give our animals lots of choices,” Thompson said, adding that that means access to air-conditioning and sprinkler systems, especially for the animals that stay outside or who aren’t quite built for this weather.

“Animals such as polar bears need some more options, such as cool places in the summertime,” she said. “In the winter, we had different factors to think about.”

The heat is top of mind at the zoo, along with how to construct exhibits to better handle extreme weather.

“We’ve all got the weather apps on our phones,” Thompson said. “We’re constantly checking what are the highs, heat index.”

Henry Vilas Zoo workers keep eye on weather, provide ways for animals to stay cool

This summer follows historic flooding and frigid weather that took a toll on some of the zoo’s most beloved animals earlier in the year. Thompson said the unprecedented flooding and cold are to blame for the death of nearly all the zoo’s prairie dogs.

“Our climate is changing, that includes these really hot days and really cold days,” she said. “We are looking to rebuild, but want to do it in the most sustainable way possible to make sure they are safe and comfortable as we move into climate that may be different from climate we have now.”

With the sun beating down Tuesday, the focus was on caring for all in the zoo, inside exhibits and out, to keep the experience cool for everyone.

“Lots of popsicles and ice cream for humans and ice treats for animals,” Thompson said.

“They love it!” Kulhman said, referring to her kids. “Love it, love it, love it.”

The aviary is currently closed as the zoo puts on a new roof to help with insulation and reduce its carbon footprint. Thompson expects it to be finished in August.

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