How The Phoenix Zoo And Its Animals Survive The Summer Heat

Published: Friday, September 4, 2015 - 12:53pm
Updated: Friday, September 4, 2015 - 5:17pm
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(Photo courtesy of Phoenix Zoo)
The Arabian Oryx doesn't mind the summer heat at the Phoenix Zoo.
(Photo by Phil Latzman - KJZZ)
Giraffes and watusi cattle at the Phoenix Zoo
(Photo by Phil Latzman - KJZZ)
Reporter attempts to interview orangutan at Phoenix Zoo

An Arizona summer is hard enough on humans. But what about for animals in captivity at the zoo?

As evidence of the weather hardships, this week’s monsoon closed the Phoenix Zoo for three days as crews worked to fix fences and clear debris. The animals were unharmed and the facility reopened today.

How do the creatures — and humans who take care of them and manage the attraction — adapt to a long, hot summer in the Valley?

Central Arizona and the African Savanna have a lot in common. That’s why many of the animals here fit right in, more so than the people.

Paige McNickle is a senior keeper at the Phoenix Zoo. She took me for a tour on a sweltering summer morning.

“Right out in front of us we see giraffe, watusi cattle, thompson gazelle, ostrich, common eland, some African crowned cranes, different kinds of African vultures and storks, and they’ve all evolved to handle this heat wonderfully, much better than we do," McNickle said.

Even when temperatures reached 117 degrees, as they did in August, McNickle said the animals were unfazed.

“They didn’t blink at all. The ostriches did decide to take baths in the pond, so they just went swimming, like we do. And the giraffes, they just hung out in the shade. They were perfectly fine," said McNickle.

The 15-foot-tall giraffes seem more concerned with the planes flying overhead in the flight path of Sky Harbor Airport.

With temperatures climbing in our desert, we move on to the area of the zoo that houses the Arabian Oryx, a medium-sized antelope with long and distinctive horns, native to the Middle East.

“It actually gets even warmer where they come from, out in the Middle East. You can see they are very light colored and they have some black on their faces to help with the shade and protect their eyes from such amazing amounts of sun and UV damage, just like you see us put sunscreen under our eyes, that’s kind of the same purpose of the black," McNickle said.

Another animal enjoying the heat of summer is the camel, who McNickle said is perfectly suited for life in the Valley.

“They’re amazingly adapted to desert life, and even all of our haboobs and monsoon storms, they can close their third eyelid, close their nostrils up and none of that dirt gets in. They really are incredible animals," said McNickle.

A 1-year-old baby orangutan named Jiwa, with his mother Bess, clearly is not enjoying the summer as much.

“Most of the animals we’ve been by have been out in the sun, but these guys being tropical, they don’t want the direct sunlight of its really hot. So, they avoid it by using those palm fronds, using the shade of the structures and going inside," she said.

McNickle suddenly stops and can’t contain herself.  “He’s so cute!” she exclaims.

So, as it turns out, the menagerie of animals seen at the Phoenix Zoo has a lot to do with our climate.

“Most all of our animals can do just fine in the weather. In fact, our African animals love this weather and no problem with it," said Bert Castro, president and CEO of the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation which runs the zoo.

Does he ever get calls from other zoos that might creatures that would be better adapted for weather in Arizona, and do they ask for creatures that would be better adapted for colder climates?

“You know probably at one time we did that, but we really won’t bring — you’ll never see a polar bear here at the Phoenix Zoo,” Castro said. “Polar bears just wouldn’t do well here. And if we were to bring them, we would have to build a facility that would cost so much money that we wouldn’t be able to afford to build it.”

Speaking of costs, the zoo itself is just starting to come out of a summer budget hibernation.

“During about five months of the year, we’re actually operating at a loss,” Castro said. “We kind of build our coffers up during the season, then we utilize those dollars during the times when attendance is low, and the revenues aren’t coming in.”

Beginning in September, Castro said the zoo begins ramping up by hiring seasonal employees as attendance increases and the weather cools down. 

And starting in September, the zoo’s hours shift from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. back to a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule to better accommodate the seasonal crowd. 

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