UTICA – If you go to the Utica Zoo in the winter, you might see a lion making a snowball.
"I don’t know how they learned to do that," said Mike Beck, director of communications at the zoo.
Beck said a zookeeper had caught a lion making a snowball – by pushing a rock around until it was covered in snow and kept growing larger and larger with more snow – which is on the zoo’s Facebook page.
Beth Ricci, a zoo area manager, corroborated the lion’s tale, noting that sometimes the snowballs have to be taken away, as the lions become territorial over them.
Ricci said the lions at the zoo were born in Utica, so they are accustomed to the colder weather of winter. Because of this, winter visitors should not be alarmed if they see the large cats lounging around or playing in the snow.
"They like going out in the snow," Ricci said. "They’re choosing to do that."
The lions – like almost every other animal at the zoo – have access to a heated area where they can stay warm. The zoo uses heated areas – oftentimes employing heat lamps – lights and heating pads to keep the water bowls from freezing.
"Our electric bill is significant this time of year," Ricci said.
Ricci said reptiles are the animals at the zoo that are most affected by cold weather. Things can get a little slimy for them if the temperature drops below 60 degrees.
Luckily, reptiles are kept in their own building with heating lamps – thereby allowing the temperature to be regulated. Zookeepers also make sure the doors to the building are kept closed to stop heat from escaping.
Unlike the reptiles, many of the other animals at the zoo have evolved to become acclimated to the weather conditions or they come from harsh climates. Some of the animals, such as the zebras, are able to grow a little bit of an extra coat.
The California sea lions already are acclimated to the cold. Ricci explained that the ocean water and the depths the sea lions dive to for food often are cold – as frigid as 40 degrees Ricci said. The water in the pool where the sea lions reside is warmer than the ambient air temperature, Ricci said. The zookeepers do feed the sea lions fattier fish so they can develop a bit more body fat in the winter months.
"We have to figure out individual requirements," Ricci said, detailing how each animal at the zoo is handled individually.