Today marks the first day of Winter 2016 which is usually a pretty lousy day of the year for me. I can't stand the cold, and the prospect of three months of being cold makes me fairly miserable. Furthermore, with it the cold brings a near endless to-do list. Put up heat lamps and wind breaks. Check on faucets and spigots and pipes to make sure they aren't freezing. Prepare to battle the exodus of pests that will suddenly find themselves with no other food options than raiding your animals' dishes.
And, perhaps the most stressful of all, the Winter Shuffle.
As temperatures drop, different zoo animals find themselves less at-home in their own enclosures, and some simply can't stay outside any more. For some animals, their exhibit comes equipped with a holding building. In some cases, these buildings are outfitted with viewing windows or have visitor access and become winter exhibits for the animals. In most cases, the animal is off-exhibit for the winter. I love these building set-ups - they give a keeper the option of allowing the animal to have outdoor access on the nice days that occasionally crop up throughout even the coldest of winters.
Other animals, however, especially smaller ones that are displayed outdoors, often don't have their own buildings. In these cases, the animal has to be caught up and moved, either to an indoor holding area or to an outdoor exhibit with better heat and shelter options. Sometimes Animal A is moved inside for the winter, and Animal B is moved into Animal A's original enclosure, sometimes in association with Animals C and D. During an exceptionally bad winter - which it seems we have more and more of lately - we find ourselves in the position of having to bring in animals that we customarily left outside all year - often on very short notice.
The shuffle - the annual catch up and move around - is one fraught with challenge. Catching up animals always leads to the potential for injury (to animal or to keeper). At the least, it often is a source of considerable stress (to animal or to keeper). Whenever animals are in transit away from their enclosure, there's the risk of escape - I once was carrying an owl across the zoo when the transport crate literally fell apart. I spent the next three hours sitting in an extremely prickly tree, coaxing the owl within net-reach. There's also increased risk of escape when the animal is moved into its new enclosure. The exhibit, after all, is meant to contain Animal A, not B.
Even if you move the animal, it may not thrive in its new enclosure. You might move a bird into a winter outdoor exhibit with lots of heat lamps and nest boxes... only for it to refuse to use any of them, sitting out like a fool on a subzero morning. Then you might have to resign yourself to moving it... again... this time indoors.
In the future, I'm trying to plan any new exhibit to have attached winter holding, so animals can be shepherded in easily and stress-free on the cold nights and given access on all others. I'm also trying to retro-fit many of our current exhibits with winter holding - limited in what one can do, of course, but better than what the animals had. Still, doing so takes time and money. Every spring, my coworkers and I swear that we'll spend the next few months really getting the zoo ready for winter.
Then December comes, we realize we've done nothing, and out come the extension cords, the heat lamps, and the capture nets.