Weather Not Fit For Man Or Beast

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TOPEKA, Kansas (WIBW) -- When freezing wind chills sweep through, humans bundle up, stay inside and turn up the thermostat.

But what about the city's other residents, the ones who live at the Topeka Zoo?

13 News got a behind-the-scenes look at what steps zoo keepers are taking to help the animals deal with the cold.

Avus, Asante and Zuri, the Topeka Zoo's three African lions, aren't used to the snow and freezing temperatures, so when the mercury dips below 20 degrees they move indoors. Once it inches back up to 32 degrees and higher, the African animals have free reign inside and out.

"We don't force them to go out in the cold, we let them stay inside in the warmth," Lion Keeper Mary Habberstich said. "But as keepers, we don't want them to get bored or get anxious, so we try to enrich them, give them as many things to keep them occupied."

Keepers gather bundles of leaves from around the zoo grounds to introduce the lions to new smells. Turns out, lions love pungent smells like ground cloves and even strong perfumes. Keepers will sprinkle those scents around the enclosure. They'll also smear small amounts of cat food around to encourage the lions to find it. They also like to play with large cardboard tubes.

While the lions are out of sight on those days when the thermostat drops below 20 degrees, many of the other zoo's animals like the giraffes, hippo and orangutans have indoor exhibits people can still see.

Bob Rosa came from New York to visit his friend Billie in Topeka. He said coming to the Topeka Zoo is always high on his list, even in the dead of winter.

"I think it's special to come all year long. You really get to see the animals and learn a little bit about them because the keepers are accessible also."

Zoo Keeper Shanna Simpson showed 13 News that not all the animals have to be cooped up inside. The North American animals, like the brown bears, mountain lions and coyotes, love the snow. But there are certain challenges that come with maintaining their homes.

"We have certain battles that we have to deal with like water freezing really quickly," Simpson said, "so breaking up ice and refilling water is our main job here. The poop is frozen to the ground so we can't pick it up very well. Kicking it with your boot works though. Also we have to make sure they have a nice, thick bed they can go to if they really need to get warm. We found that straw makes the best bedding."

Another battle is making sure the zoo keepers are safe too.

"Working as a keeper in the North American area during this time is a lot more difficult. I mean, I have three pairs of pants on. You have to be really careful because it is dangerous for people to be out. But it's still fun."

Just because there's a little snow on the ground shouldn't stop visitors from coming to the Topeka Zoo. People can still see a whole range of animals in the Tropical Rainforest, where it's always 75 degrees.

Joe Maloney gets the lucky task of wearing shorts to work with snow on the ground.

"It's really nice working with the diversity of animals in here. You've got the birds, the mammals like the sloths, reptiles, tortoises. It's just really interesting to work in here and you don't have to break any ice like the rest of the keepers have to."

Visitors, like Joe, can always find a haven in the rainforest.

"It's really nice to wake up in the morning, look at the temperature at zero degrees and think, well it's alright, I'll be in the rainforest today. I try not to rub it in the other keepers' face too often."

The Topeka Zoo is open regular hours in the winter, but remember that once the temperatures go below 20 degrees, the African animals will be inside.