The keepers at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo aren’t monkeying around when it comes to preparing the animals for the snowstorm forecasted to hit Israel’s capital on Wednesday.
Having suffered the loss of six animals during a highly unusual snowstorm that walloped the city in December 2013, the keepers are determined not to leave any winter weather-sensitive creatures out in the cold this time.
Since early this week, the staff at The Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem, as the zoo is formally known, have been hard at work preparing the animals’ habitats to protect them from freezing temperatures, high winds, pounding rain and possible snow. They have also been double-checking food stores and making plans for some of the keepers to stay at the zoo around the clock during the storm, as well as afterwards, in case road access is cut off.
“We have been checking the heating systems in all the animal houses, and we’ve installed backup generators for the areas housing the reptiles,” said Nili Avni-Magen, the zoo’s head veterinarian and zoological director, as she showed this Times of Israel reporter around the 62 acres of grounds on the western edge of Jerusalem on Monday.
Last year, the zoo lost power for several hours. Electrical heating systems in the animal houses that are down for any longer could prove fatal for reptiles, which cannot regulate their body temperatures and must be kept warm.
“If the electricity goes out and the generators fail, we would move the reptiles — including the crocodiles — into the clinic, which has its own backup power source,” said the head veterinarian.
At the clinic, she pointed out the area where the crocodiles, which can survive some time away from water, would stay. Along one wall were stacks of carriers that the keepers would use to transfer the smaller reptiles to safety from the reptile house.
Being holed up inside their warming houses is apparently not an unusual experience for a considerable proportion of the zoo’s 2,000 animals. Even when there is no snow falling, many of them spend all night, every night, indoors during the winter. Some, like the chimps, which hail from tropical climates and are susceptible to similar pathogens as are humans, must remain indoors whenever the temperature drops below 10 degrees Celsius.
The keepers work to keep the animals from becoming stressed over being confined to the indoor spaces. For instance, they often do puzzles with the primates and various “enrichment activities” with the elephants.
“On one occasion, several years ago, when we had to keep the chimps inside for a prolonged period during cold weather, we put a TV on and played ‘Baby Mozart’ tapes for them,” recalled the zoological director.
Some of the animals, such as the kangaroos, zebras and rhinos, as well as species native to Israel like the oryx, gazelle and fallow deer, are expected to fare fine outdoors. For them, the issue is not so much the snow and cold as the wetness. For these creatures, the zoo staff has put out extra straw in the covered shelters in the outdoor exhibit areas to help keep them dry.
The zoo staff will be keeping a close eye on the youngest and oldest animals.
“It’s the pediatric and geriatric ones that are most vulnerable to extreme weather,” explained Avni-Magen.
Responsibility for the supervision of all the animals is laid out in the zoo’s emergency snow protocol. According to it, staff must stay at the zoo if there is any chance that reaching it from outside will be made too risky by weather conditions.
Last year, three of the 30 full-time and part-time keepers slept at the zoo, and 15 to 20, mainly those living nearby, made their way (some on foot) to the grounds to take care of the animals. The same staffing arrangement is expected this time around.
Avni-Magen and her colleagues learned the hard way that one of the zoo’s greatest assets — its many old, tall trees — is also one of its biggest hazards. Two flamingos were killed when a snow-laden branch fell on them during the storm in December 2013.
The zoo, which is usually closed only three days during the year, did not reopen to the public for almost a week due to the huge number of fallen trees and branches that needed to be cleared away.
“One of the biggest lessons we learned from last year’s snowstorm was the importance of trimming the trees ahead of time,” said Avni-Magen as she passed crews cutting dead branches off trees along a pathway.
Whether or not the forecasted snowstorm actually materializes, the head veterinarian is confident that the zoo is ready to face whatever Mother Nature throws at Jerusalem this week.
“At least the red panda will be very happy. She can’t stand the heat and sits in her air-conditioned house all summer long,” said Avni-Magen. “She’ll be very happy to be outside in the snow and cold.”