Awakening from hibernation and going online: How the Zoo ushers in spring

May 8
Parks and pedestrian areas

At the Moscow Zoo spring has truly arrived. The inhabitants are awakening from their hibernation and taking strolls outside from their warm winter homes. The interior decorators have got down to work and are preparing such things as swimming pools turning on waterfalls and the pavilions are being spruced up.

So far only one thing looks a bit strange: the zoo inhabitants are not being greeted by crowds of visitors. The Zoo has temporarily suspended all its operations due to the coronavirus. Some residents of the enclosures it seems are even missing the usual live interaction. For instance, young gorillas love playing with visitors, they attract the visitors’ attention by pounding their chests or banging on the glass partitions behind which they stand.

One can watch the zoo inhabitants welcome the spring via the internet. The Zoo workers are regularly uploading videos onto social networks and the site. One can see there online streaming from the giant pandas’ enclosures at. Ru Yi and Ding Ding came to Moscow last year as part of the giant panda preservation, protection and study programme and immediately became favourites with the public.

The long winter months

One might think that the Zoo is not as interesting in the winter as it is during the summer. However, its workers would disagree. According to them, the inhabitants do not vanish and they can still be seen in their warm enclosures which match their summer ones, plus life during the chilly season becomes somewhat more diverse. Some animals become fluffier like the European foxes, or if in the case of polar foxes, they change the tint of their fur.

The zoo is home to over 8,000 inhabitants and there are over a thousand different species. Many of them remain outside all the year round. While wolves, polar foxes, musk oxen and yaks are a common site during the cold season, other animals are somewhat of a surprise. For example, Bactrian camels or giant pandas. The Zoo’s camel in fact inhabits cold prairies and can withstand even such an icy temperature as -40C and pandas are quite used to snowy Chinese winters.

Most of those who spend the winter time in their snug homes occasionally go for a little stroll. Even such hot-blooded creatures as sloth bears, maned wolves and zebras love going for a wee saunter. Meanwhile, some of the Zoo’s buildings where monkeys, birds and tortoises reside feel just like the tropics.

Wakey wakey, rise and shine

Only 14 animal species hibernate in the Zoo during the winter months. However, taking a peep at how each one awakens from their slumber is really quite something. Last season the weather was responsible for the changes in the Zoo residents’ usual schedule.

Groundhogs were traditionally the first ones to wake up — they emerged from their holes back on 19 February. They usually awaken in the first week of March, however, if there was heavy snow in the winter, groundhogs can hibernate well into the middle of the month. But this year they woke up three weeks earlier due to the warm winter and the early thaw. A few days prior to it, the chief male, four-year-old Archie, cleared the exit from the hole from soil, dry grass and clay. Groundhogs gradually wake up from hibernation and get back to their routine bit by bit. Archie makes rounds of his territory several times a day, renews additional entrances to the hole and removes any rubbish from the underground passageways.

Bears were the next to stir. The warm spring woke them a month earlier. Brown bear Rosa and a couple of Himalayan black bears Alladin and Budur sauntered out into the outside enclosures already on 6 March. Last year they began leaving their artificial dens in April. The Zoo keepers laid treats for the bears in the outside enclosures, such as apples, pears and lettuce. After awakening the beasts of pray prefer light fodder and gradually get back to their full menu within a month and a half.

So far Rosa, Alladin and Budur are not spending that much time in the open: the animals are still rather sleepy, and if they take a stroll in the early hours of the day, they will most probably be taking a nap by lunchtime. This is nothing out of the ordinary for bears which have just aroused themselves from hibernation. Besides, their age also has to do with this as in the case of Rosa who is 28, Alladin 26 and Budur 25 years old. In the wild they live about 30 years whereas in zoos they can live up to the grand age of 50.

Raccoons were the next to wake up on the heels of the groundhogs and the bears. Raccoons usually hibernate in early December but their winter sleep was two months late due to the tardiness of the snow arriving. As a result, the animals snoozed till the end of March. The keepers were monitoring the raccoons’ condition and their cage. The animals passed through hibernation well and are slowly getting back to their normal way of life. Soon after awakening they were relocated to a new enclosure with soft soil, trees, numerous hideouts and food puzzles which raccoons are so fond of.

Jerboas also arose from hibernation in April. The weather did not affect their sleep in any way since they spend winters in special refrigerators. The animals stay in their own personal homes covered in foam rubber. The zoologists were regularly weighing them for almost a year and then got them up when their weight approached what it should be during the summer season.

“The jerboas were placed into the enclosures together with their bedrooms. They are always woken up in the afternoon so that these nocturnal animals could warm up by the time night falls. When the jerboas were hibernating, their body temperature fell from 37C to about 4C and their heartbeat went from 300 to five or six per minute,” Filipp Tumasyan, the leading zoologist of the small mammals department, said.

 A place under the sun

Preparations for the warm season start at the Zoo in early spring. The workers do the spring-cleaning, rearrange the settings, sow more grass, plough and renew the soil. Many animals vigorously check whether their enclosures are sturdy enough. Thus, the meerkats’ enclosure has to be regularly mended.

As of today, all the outside water systems have been inspected, the waterfalls that flow during the summer season are being turned on one by one, swimming pools for predators, elephants and monkeys are being filled. Pinnipeds, beavers, polar bears and penguins swim in the swimming pools all the year round, and the equipment required for these is regularly maintained.

Of special concern for the keepers is preparing the hot-blooded creatures for going out. It is a very subtle and gradual process, the Zoo workers say. Thus flamingos, which spend the winter in a warm house, are being readied for the changeable spring weather one month in advance. Each day the temperature in their house is lowered by half a degree and occasionally the door is left slightly ajar. Little by little the birds begin to saunter out into their open-air enclosures. “They are only released once the night air temperature is above freezing and the day temperature stays around 6C to 7C. It must be a sunny day when the flamingos appear for the first time out of doors as nearly always they head straight for a dip, and it is important that they should have a chance to dry off afterwards,” says Gayane Piloyan, the leading zoologist of the ornithology department.

Meanwhile, ostriches and black antelopes have been taking their strolls for a long time already, sometimes even in the winter. They can safely go out for a short time even when the temperature is -5C.

By and by the other animals also saunter into their open-air enclosures. Giraffes Samson and Lipa as well as capybaras have long been taking walks. It is crucial for them that the air temperature should be above 5C without any cold wind. The meerkats are to come out soon, too, as they need it to constantly be 10C and the ground should be solid.

Elephants can also walk in the daytime now. Baby elephant Filion was the one who enjoyed most the chance to run about in the open-air enclosure. His mother Pipita and sister Kiprida also managed to take a stroll and have a sand shower which helps them to keep their hide from drying up. It’s also a way of getting rid of any irritating insects. The elephants are still kept indoors at night though. As soon the temperature stays above 7C, the animals will be allowed to spend all their time in their enclosure.

Waiting for summer

The animals that love heat will be waiting for hotter weather. Thus, dik-diks choose only to go outdoors when the temperature stays at 15C with no humidity whereas Ksyusha the pigmy hippopotamus only after the temperature is above 18C.

Photo: Moscow Zoo Press Service

“But not everybody that resides at the Zoo has a liking for heat. The polar bears will have heaps of snow and a moat filled with cold water even in the summer while the pavilion with the giant pandas has a strict climate control which ensures that the temperature stays at about 10C to 23C and humidity above 60 percent. Fruit or fish ice is regularly prepared for the polar bears – clean water is frozen with apples, carrots and fish in special small moulds of different sizes,” said Svetlana Akulova, director general of the Moscow Zoo.

And while the Zoo inhabitants are getting ready for the warm weather and are waiting for visitors, they can be watched online. During the week, the Zoo workers upload training sessions and demo feeding time of the animals. The enclosures can be seen from the inside, a perspective which was previously not available to visitors. Apart from this, the keepers share video lectures, tour guides and sketches from the life of the creatures that reside at the Zoo.


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