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Published April 02 2013

VIDEO: After cold and snowy winter, Red River Zoo, animals prepare for spring

FARGO - Inside one of the Red River Zoo’s animal exhibits, small holes at the top of a snow pile are a barely noticeable harbinger of spring.

The holes were made by the zoo’s prairie dogs as they came up after a winter’s worth of underground slumber.

Almost as if on cue, the holes started to appear in the snow in the middle of last week, according to Lisa Tate, the zoo’s executive director.

Even though this is the time of year when the prairie dogs normally start coming above ground, Tate thought their appearance might have been delayed this year, due to the large amount of snow still on the ground.

“Given the amount of snow we’ve had in the exhibit, I was a little surprised,” Tate says, as she walked around the zoo’s facilities.

Indeed, it’s been a long, cold and snowy winter in the Red River Valley, a fact that didn’t seem to escape the zoo’s animals. During our visit last week, they seemed to be appreciating the promise of a spring day just as much as any of us.

Not far away from the prairie dog exhibit, a gray fox stretched and yawned lazily. Next door, the zoo’s gray wolves sat peacefully in the middle of their enclosure, absorbing the day’s rays of sunshine.

However, as cold and snowy as this winter was, the animals are more than used to it. Most of the zoo’s species, such as the fox and the wolves, are cold-climate animals and aren’t too bothered by Fargo winters.

In fact, Tate says, the animals probably handled the winter better than the humans did. That’s because there’s plenty of work and maintenance that needs to be done around the zoo during the winter months, even if it’s only open on the weekends.

“We say that the poor zookeepers have the most difficulty dealing with winter,” Tate says, laughing.

Keeping the snow down

During blizzards this winter, zookeepers had to stay overnight at the zoo, Tate says, to make sure that snow didn’t pile up too high.

If there was too much accumulation, snow could get high enough that animals could walk or jump over their enclosure walls.

“We have to be very cognizant of that,” Tate says.

Animals that have smaller enclosures with shorter walls, such as the porcupine, had to be removed altogether during blizzards, Tate says.

“If they have a foot, they’ll easily crawl out,” she says.

Only one outdoor animal at the zoo isn’t accustomed to the cold weather – the meerkat. During the winter that species is moved to another zoo until warmer weather returns, Tate says.

Their enclosure currently sits empty, except for about an hour a day, when the zoo’s river otters are brought out to play.

Additionally, safety measures have to be taken for some of the larger exhibits – such as those that house the deer or taki –which have large pools of water that need to be emptied and fenced off during winter, Tate says.

“Even though there’s no water in the pond, ice can still develop, and (animals) can get in and slip and hurt themselves,” she says.

And just in terms of upkeep, there’s plenty of other work that needs to be done to get the zoo ready for summer, such as cleaning up mud and melting snow.

“We would never want the zoo to be open with this,” Tate says, gesturing towards a large puddle of water on a sidewalk near the llama enclosure.

Additions, departures and a new baby

As the Red River Zoo prepares to open full time for the summer on April 21, visitors may notice a few changes in the animal roster.

For starters, there are the white-naped cranes, which debuted in their newly-built enclosure in January.

Tate thinks the cranes, which are native to Asia, will be especially popular with zoo visitors when the weather warms up.

“They have this mating dance where they do this bobbing and weaving,” she says. “I think they’ll be a big hit.”

On first glance it looks like the cranes, with their skinny, bare legs, may not be well-suited for a cold environment, but Tate says that’s not at all the case.

“When it was 20-below, they were just hanging out here,” she says, pointing to the birds’ outdoor enclosure. “Their circulatory system is made for this.”

Visitors may also notice that the popular red pandas, which weren’t out in the sun last week like many other animals, are down a member of their family. Last month, one of the cubs was sent to the Greensboro, N.C., Natural Science Center in an effort to breed the endangered species.

Meanwhile, the muntjac, one of the smallest species of deer, boasts an addition to their group – a fawn was born toward the end of February.

Tate hopes that the muntjac won’t be the only birth the zoo sees this spring, but she says right now it’s the only one of which staff is aware.

“We’re hoping for the camels and red pandas,” she says, though she added that it’s difficult to predict when those species would give birth.

“It’s hard to say. We record when we see mating behavior, but animals are very good at hiding pregnancies,” she says.

The new otter exhibit, which the zoo announced last summer, is expected to be finished by September. The exhibit will cost about $550,000, and will house two river otters that were rescued from their den along the Sheyenne River last spring.

Tate expects the exhibit will be a huge draw for the zoo when it opens. She hopes that construction, which will begin when weather is warm enough, will be done before fall sweeps in.

“As soon as construction can get started, we’re ready to go,” she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535