‘Cool’ Care: How the Zoo Provides for Animals in Winter

February 16, 2022

Winter in Chicago offers fresh snowfall, chilly temperatures, and plenty of seasonal joy, as well as a unique perspective on how species at the zoo handle the coldest months of the year. For some animals with natural adaptations to cold climates, such as polar bears, Japanese macaques, and takins, acclimating during the winter is easy. Contrary to popular belief, species native to warmer parts of the world can still handle a Chicago winter (and even enjoy it too!) with the help of Animal Care staff and specific habitat features. African lions, we’re looking at you!

What goes into caring for the animals at the zoo during the coldest months of the year? We rounded up your cold-weather questions and spoke with Animal Care staff to help answer them. Find out the answers, below, and discover how visiting the zoo during the wintertime provides a ‘cool’ and unique opportunity to visit your favorite species.

Polar bears Siku and Talini at Walter Family Arctic Tundra. Photo courtesy of Brent Mavity.


Which species are typically most active during the winter months and acclimate to cold temperatures well?

Species at the zoo are still active during the cold months, especially those suited to cool climates. Animals you can expect to see outside in chillier temperatures include Japanese macaques, snow leopards, Canada lynx, Chilean flamingos, Sichuan takins, polar bears, cinereous vultures, African penguins, and red wolves.

Japanese macaques at Regenstein Macaque Forest. Photo courtesy of Gina Sullivan.

What about species without natural adaptations to cold climates? Are there certain temperatures where these species are recommended to stay indoors?

Animal Care and Veterinary staff have curated temperature guidelines for each species, which are updated yearly. If temperatures drop too low, some animals at the zoo remain in their indoor spaces for their own health and safety. Some species also have other limitations such as the impacts of wind or ice in their habitat which may impact access.

The African lion pride has access to their outdoor habitat in temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit—all thanks to their climate-controlled habitat. Pepper Family Wildlife Center provides many environmental choices for the lions, including both embedded heating (in the form of heated rocks) and cooling elements. On a cool day, chances are you’ll spot the pride lounging on the heated rocks in their habitat.

The African lion pride posed on a heated rock at Pepper Family Wildlife Center. Photo courtesy of Jill Dignan.

Over at Regenstein African Journey, the African painted dogs have access to their outdoor yard if the temperature is 19 degrees Fahrenheit and above. Similarly, the plains zebras have access to their yard if the temperature is 15 degrees and above.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the snow leopards, Canada lynx, polar bears, red pandas, seals, African penguins, and cinereous vultures can thrive in all temperatures thanks to their natural adaptations and typically have access to their outdoors spaces year-round.


So long as the temperature is within the species’ guidelines, animals at the zoo have the choice whether to spend their time in indoor spaces or outdoor habitats.

Eastern black rhino Kapuki. Photo courtesy of Cassy Kutilek.


I thought flamingos were native to warm climates. How come they are outside in the snow?

Lincoln Park Zoo is home to a flock of Chilean flamingos—a species that can be found from Brazil and Peru in the north through Argentina in the south. Thanks to their ability to tolerate extreme conditions, like the elevated altitudes in the Andes, Chilean flamingos are well-suited for Chicago winters.

Chilean flamingos. Photo courtesy of Julia Fuller.

What temperature is the water at Kovler Seal Pool kept at?

During winter months, steam can be spotted rising from Kovler Seal Pool, making guests wonder just how warm the water is. The temperature range for the pool is anywhere from 45-70 F, but the pool temperature generally remains between 55-65 F.

A harbor seal. Photo courtesy of Chris Bijalba.

Do animal diets change during winter months?

Some animals, including the waterfowl, flamingos, swans, camels, takins, and zebra, all consume more food in the colder weather so their curated diets are adjusted accordingly. On the other hand, the polar bears, black bears, and seals have a natural seasonal reduction in their diets, as these species utilize fat stores that build up in the summer months.

How does Lincoln Park Zoo prepare for a winter storm?

You can never be too prepared! In the fall, the zoo begins taking precautions for the winter months with a snow preparedness drill, which requires all areas of the zoo to ensure that snow removal equipment is working properly. This includes checking on the number of shovels, gloves, and waders available. Some areas of the zoo undergo winterization, which includes acquiring extra bedding, putting wind blocks in place, and ensuring supplemental heating is good to go. Habitats with heated rocks, such as Pepper Family Wildlife Center and Regenstein Macaque Forest, are checked to ensure that they are functioning properly. The zoo monitors the weather forecast for information about expected low temperatures and snowfall.

Male snow leopard Ozzy. Photo courtesy of Cassy Kutilek.


Is the zoo able to use salt to melt icy areas?

For the health and safety of the animals, Animal Care staff do not use any ice melting products inside animal habitats, though it is used in human spaces. To combat icy spots within habitats, keepers may put down sand for traction.

Which species surprisingly enjoy spending time in the snow?

On relatively warmer days when the sun is out, you can find the rhinos, chimpanzees, and gorillas partaking in their own snow days! Recently, the bachelor troop of gorillas enjoyed interacting with fresh snowfall in different ways. Umande was spotted running laps outdoors, while Amare would run outside, grab an armful of snow, and bring it back indoors. Snow can serve as a wonderful form of environmental enrichment for species at the zoo, encouraging their natural instincts and engaging their senses.

Look who was spotted enjoying the snow. Photo courtesy of Cassy Kutilek.


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