Snowstorm does not disrupt life for Cougar Mountain Zoo denizens

January 24, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Snowstorm, ice and aftermath / Jan. 16-20, 2012

Biff the alpaca stands in the snow as a snowstorm hit Cougar Mountain Zoo on Jan. 18. By Robyn Barfoot/Cougar Mountain Zoo

The macaws retreated inside to toastier temperatures. The tigers tolerated the cold. The reindeer, unsurprisingly, reveled in the snow.

Though most Issaquah residents experienced a snow day Jan. 18, a major snowstorm did not disrupt the routine for the denizens of Cougar Mountain Zoo.

“The animals don’t care that it’s snowing outside and we don’t want to get out of bed,” General Curator Robyn Barfoot said. “They need us and that is our driving force.”

The rare Bengal tigers Almos, Bagheera, Taj and Vitez lounge in heated enclosures if the mercury falls. Some species — such as colorful macaws and other birds from tropical climates — spend cold days inside and off display. Other animals carouse in the cold temperatures and deep snow.

“The reindeer are like, ‘Woohoo! Party! This is our kind of environment!’” Barfoot said.

(Cougar Mountain Zoo’s Siberian reindeer headline a holiday festival each December.)

Species at the 30-year-old zoo run from exotic — the aforementioned Bengal tigers — to strange. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, for instance.

The potential for harsh conditions means zookeepers must prepare to address each species’ unique needs amid the cold.

“We actually have chosen each of the animals that reside here at the Cougar Mountain Zoo for their ability to adapt to various climate changes and also the hardiness of each species,” Barfoot said.

The effort to outfit the zoo for a major snowstorm started Jan. 15, as snowflakes dusted Cougar Mountain and other Issaquah Alps peaks.

In the days before a snowstorm, Barfoot monitors the forecast and starts changing the animals’ diets in order to adjust for the coming changes in temperature and precipitation.

The nutritional shift means animals receive more calories — to maintain a proper body temperature in the cold — and no cold or wet food.

“That makes their core cold,” Barfoot explained.

Instead, zoo denizens receive nuts and other quality proteins to gird for a snowstorm.

Zookeepers also readied generators to run in case the facility lost electricity.

Staffers added more snug bedding to the animals’ enclosures. Zookeepers readied the shelters for each species for the snowstorm, though some animals did not require as much special attention.

The cold and snow do not affect cougar cubs Keira, Miksa and Tika so much, because the cougar is a native species. (Hence the names of the mountain and the zoo.)

“When we had all of that rain, they were like the little kids playing in a puddle,” Barfoot said.

The preparations at the zoo unfolded as residents elsewhere in Issaquah monitored forecasts and stockpiled supplies.

Barfoot is also responsible for the humans at the zoo — zookeepers needed to tend to the animals and ensure feedings and cleanings occur as normal, regardless of snowfall or other inconveniences.

Mere geography poses a challenge to zoo employees. The facility sits along a steep hill, about a half-mile uphill from the main thoroughfare in the area, Newport Way Northwest.

So, staffers sometimes don YakTrax — traction devices to turn regular shoes into something as sturdy as mountain goat hooves — and climb to the zoo on foot. Or employees head downhill in all-wheel-drive vehicles to retrieve stranded staffers.

Because each zookeeper is trained in multiple disciplines, a smaller group can run the facility if some staffers cannot reach the zoo in difficult conditions.

“It’s a very team effort,” Barfoot said. “Everyone here is here for the animals. They understand that when most of Seattle got a free day home because of the snow today, we had to come in.”

The zoo seldom closes due to inclement conditions. On Jan. 18, as the Issaquah School District canceled classes and many residents remained home from work, a handful of attendees hiked to the zoo to see the animals romping in the snow.

“The way I see it and the way the zoo sees it is, we all have to be here anyway to take care of the animals, so we may as well be open,” Barfoot said. “We’d really rather have the people come out and say hi if they can, as long as they can make it up safely.”

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