It may have been this past Monday, the first day after the Thanksgiving weekend. Or maybe today, being the first day of December. For some facilities, it might not be for another week or two. Across the nation, however, more and more zoos are flipping the sign at the front gate and changing the marquees - "Closed for the Season."
Not all zoos close during the winter months; of the half-dozen facilities that I've worked at since graduating college and starting in the field, only two of them have shut down in the winter. Others have carried on reduced hours, more in response to the shorter daylight hours, and others have gone on, business as usual, all year. Aquariums, being indoors and climate controlled, tend not to shut down, which is just as well. There can be little enough to do in the winter in some cities without taking away that option as well.
My current workplace stays open all year round - Christmas and Thanksgiving are the only days we close to the public. Sometimes, I'll admit, I do get all misty-eyed and nostalgic about being closed for the winter. Without having to worry about the human side of the operation - cleaning up trash, giving keeper talks, keeping an eye on unruly school kids - you can really give more of your attention to the animals. More training, more observation, more enrichment - and not having to worry about whether it looks natural or not. If you hit a patch of bad weather and need to pull an animal off-exhibit for a week... or a month... go ahead! Not like there will be anyone there to complain!
And the projects... oh those wonderful winter projects. Okay, the winter itself isn't that great for getting stuff done, but those last days of February and those early ones in March are something special. It may still be just in the 30's, but it feels tropical compared to the frozen nightmare you've just gone through, the sun is shining, and you can actually hear the snow melting, dripping non-stop throughout the day. This is when you bring in the machinery (without having to worry about running over small children), tear down the old, build the new, slap on paint, clear up beds for plantings, and all in all, renew the zoo. Animals that have been pulled in for the winter can start going back out towards the end of this time frame, and when they do, they'll find their exhibits refurbished and new.
Of course there are things I regret about closing in the winter. Some of our animals are at their finest that time of year, rolling the snow or enjoying the brisk air. There can be some beautiful days midwinter, and it's a shame that people aren't there to enjoy them with us. For zoo members (who don't have to pay admission), the zoo and its grounds can be a lovely place to take a walk, even if the only animals who are out and about are the Arctic foxes, the snowy owls, and the red pandas.
Oh, and there's the cabin fever. For a while, we're all like "Yeah, no visitors! No guest services staff! No school groups and chaperones and teachers!" Then, after three months of dealing with just each other, we start to go stir crazy. When we're all in the kitchen making diets, I make a point of standing close to the door, just in case one of the old-timers finally snaps while they're brandishing a butcher knife. Come late March, all of us have decided that we're ready to love visitors again.
Given the preference, I'm for leaving the zoo open any day when it's safe enough to do us (i.e., paths not covered with black ice). On that note, there are plenty of horrible days in the winter when I look up through the tiny slit between my scarf and my hood and see visitors strolling aimlessly through the sleet and wonder "What on earth are you DOING here?"
If your zoo is open for the winter, it might be worth checking it out. Many northern zoos have lots of indoor exhibits, and at the very least those will be open. A surprising number of animals may be on display outdoors as well. You won't see all the same animals, but you'll see them in a different light.