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Monday, August 3, 2015

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

"Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."
-Noel Coward

The dog days of August are upon us... though why they call them "Dog Days" I don't understand.  The dogs don't want them.  No one does.  It's hot, muggy, and miserable, and I feel like the second I step outside, someone is draping a damp roll of carpeting over me.  It's miserable, but I have to be out in it.

Most people don't.

If I ever ran my own zoo, I seriously think I might propose a new strategy.  We'd be open from 6 AM or so until 10 in the morning.  Then, we'd shut down and everyone would have siesta time.  We'd reopen at 3 in the afternoon until 7 or so in the evening.

It makes no sense to me that zoos are at their busiest at midday in the summer.  After all, we aren't the only ones that hate the heat - the animals do too.  They aren't going to be active or playful or engaging when its 95 degrees - they'll be in the shade, in a burrow, or in their (possibly air-conditioned) holding buildings.  For some animals, like polar bears and snow leopards, this seems obvious.  For others, especially the tropical animals, it's less so.  On two occasions I've been to Africa on wildlife-watching trips.  In each case, we went for an early morning game drive, and a second one late in the afternoon, early in the evening.  In the midday, we stayed in camp - there was nothing to see out there at the time of day.

During the summer heat, we keepers have our hands full keeping our animals comfy.  Monitoring visitors is another challenge.  Sunburn, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are common problems in the summer, especially with infants (I've seen idiotic parents prancing around on 100 degree days with babies that must have been straight from the hospital) and the elderly.  I've had to call ambulances more than once on barely-conscious guests I've had to drag into the shade on blistering days.

It's amazing to me how much easier it is to adapt animals to cold than heat.  I've seen zebras and kangaroos and cheetahs in the snow, seemingly perfectly  comfortable as long as they have somewhere to go to get warm.  On the other hand, many northern animals, such as wolverine and moose, do very poorly in hot, humid weather, and as a result relatively few facilities outside of the native range house those species.  For visitors, heat is obviously much more dangerous than cold.  When it's cold, visitors stay home and bundle up.  When it's hot, they troop outside and expose themselves to as much heat as possible.

Aquariums are great to visit year-round, any time of day.  No matter what it's like outside, you'll generally be comfortably indoors.  A zoo visit, however, is at its best in the fall or spring, or maybe on a mild winter's day.  Or, if you go in the summer (after all, that's when our vacations are), go early in the day and beat the noontime heat.

And then enjoy that siesta.

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