Where Cool Heads Prevail:
Strategies to Keep Zoo Guests Comfortable in the Heat of the Season

September 1, 2011 No Comments

Zoo MisterThe summer months provide the biggest boon in zoo attendance, but when crippling heat hovers for an extended period of time, zoo directors have to find ways to keep both animals and guests comfortable. The 500-acre North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro, N.C., is the first zoo designed as a natural-habitat facility, which means the exhibit areas resemble the habitats of animals in the wild.  Situated on hilly and wooded terrain in the Uwharrie Mountains, the zoo welcomes more than 700,000 guests per year. “The past three summers have been extremely hot,” said Guy Lichty, curator of mammals at the zoo for the past 19 years.  “If we want our guests to come, we have to make them comfortable no matter how hot it is.” The zoo places misters throughout the grounds. Additionally, the more than six miles of trails are naturally shaded by deciduous trees. “We are in a forest so the trees shade all the paths and trails. We use as much of the natural environment to help cool the guests as possible, plus we provide extra comforts too,” Lichty noted. “Along with the misters, we have an open air tram, which gets a nice breeze when guests ride it from one part of the zoo to the other.  The tram also allows guests to rest a bit before walking again. We also have several indoor exhibits that are in air-conditioned buildings. We have ample water fountains and beverage and frozen treat refreshments too.”
In 2009, the North Carolina Zoo opened a geyser exhibit, which includes five man-made geysers that are designed to erupt much like natural geysers. The geysers go off every five minutes.  
“The guests line up on our overlook to watch the animals below and then the geyser erupts and everyone gets cooled off. You can hear a collective ‘Ah’ coming from the crowd. It’s lots of fun.”
For those who do suffer from heat exhaustion or other heat-related ailments, the North Carolina Zoo has on staff rangers who patrol the zoo both on foot and in carts.  They are supplied with water, ice and bottled sports drinks for guests in trouble.
“We have trained EMTs and a first aid station, which is a cool place for people to rest and get checked out,” Lichty explained. “We also have air-conditioned shuttle buses that take guests from parking lot to parking lot. There are two entrances to the zoo, The North American entrance and the African entrance, and often people wind up at exhibits on the opposite side of the zoo from where their cars are parked.  We give them a comfortable lift back.”   
The 43-acre Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens in Naples, Fla., welcomes more than 300,000 guests each year. With its location in Florida, zoo guests are used to heat, but Director of Conservation Tim Tetzlaff knows that if guests are not comfortable, they might not return.
Located in an historic botanical garden, the zoo offers a canopy of natural cooling trees for guests.  When trees are not practical, many guests use large umbrellas.  
“The umbrellas provide needed shade, and we also help guests out with misting fans, which are located in several sunny areas plus by our playground,” Tetzlaff noted.  “This year, we added a walk-thru shade structure with heavy misting. We do have an alternate path around the structure for guests who bring cameras or other electronic devices and don’t want them to get wet.”
The zoo also offers cold beverages and other cooling refreshment. Even though the animals are mainly tropical species and used to heat, they also get an extra frozen treat – either fruit or meat depending on the animal. The Naples Zoo trains staff in heat exhaustion as well. “We are getting more and more heat exhaustion and heat-related emergencies each year,” said Tetzlaff.  “We train our staff in first aid so they can recognize the symptoms and help the person affected as quickly as possible
Each year, 1.3 million guests visit the Milwaukee County Zoo, and while summer months are peak times for visitors with 80 percent of attendance occurring from May through September, the weather can have a negative impact on attendance numbers if guests are melting from the heat. The zoo, which is located on 200 wooded acres and is home to approximately 2,500 animals representing 300 species, uses both natural and man-made cooling methods to keep guests comfortable.
“We do rely a great deal on our natural cooling assets, but we also have misting stations strategically set up in the zoo,” explained Karl Hackbarth, director of operations. “Our horticultural staff sets up sprinklers on the grassy areas, which are accessible to guests who want to jump in and get wet.”
Most buildings in the zoo are air conditioned, which also provides visitors with some respite from the heat.  Although most of June and July were in the comfortable temperature range, Hackbarth and his staff are vigilant about the possibility of heat exhaustion and heat-induced illnesses.  “We have security patrols throughout the zoo plus an EMT that patrols as well,” Hackbarth explained. “We also tell our staff to reach out to people who they think are in trouble.  Get them to a cool place.  They don’t have to wait for security to show up to help someone out.”
More than 250,000 guests visit the Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, Ill., each year. During the summer months, the zoo, which features 900 animals from more than 150 species, sees their guest attendance soar much like the temperatures.  Assistant Zoo Director Marc Heinzman works with staff to ensure visitor safety and enjoyment during the hottest days of the year.
“We have oscillating mister fans and a lot of shade structures as well. We also keep benches under large trees, and we have a number of indoor exhibits plus the gift shop, which gives our guests time in air-conditioned buildings.”
The management staff at Niabi Zoo is trained in first aid and how to recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion or other illnesses.
“We tell our staff to be vigilant and helpful and not be afraid to reach out to guests if they even question something might be wrong.  We want our guests to have a safe and wonderful time here, and it’s our job to make sure they do.”    
The Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla., exhibits more than 550 animals. Natural vegetation that screens the sun helps the more than 350,000 guests enjoy their visit even on the hottest days of the year.  
“We are fortunate that we have such lush vegetation, and we are able to incorporate that with pergolas, kiosks and seating areas in the shade,” noted Deborah Batt, administrative assistant for the zoo.  “We also provide misting stations along our main loop boardwalk and a shower is located near our Visayan Warty Pig exhibit.  There is also a shallow water splash area where children can play and cool off.
The Brevard Zoo also hosts special summertime events that help guests beat the heat.
“We have Arctic Blast Tuesdays in July at 1 p.m.,” Batt explained. “We drop six giant ice cubes into the water play area of our brand new Paws On exhibit.  Each ice cube is roughly 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide by 1 foot thick and weighs 300 pounds.”
Brevard Zoo offers extended summer hours for all eight Saturdays in June and July. Guests can come after the hottest part of the day to see some of the zoo animals on exhibit until dusk. They can feed the giraffe, go kayaking or and take a paddle boat ride.
Staff that has most guest contact, such as the Education and Guest Service departments, are all certified in First Aid, CPR and AED (Automated External Defibrillators).  All staff must attend an annual training session on heat illness that focuses on recognizing signs of heat distress and what treatment steps should be taken.   
“We take our guests comfort and safety extremely seriously,” Batt explained. “We want them to come and enjoy our zoo and create a memory that will make them want to come back again and again.”
As Director of the Greenville Zoo in Greenville, S.C., Jeff Bullock understands the importance of heat distress and being safe in hot weather.
“We have shaded animal viewing areas, covered picnic shelters and public buildings that are air conditioned so that guests can take time and cool off,’ said Bullock.  “We also have a misting station in the zoo.  Next year, we are looking to add ceiling fans in the picnic shelters as well.”
Staff at Greenville Zoo, which averages about 250,000 guests per year, is trained to recognize and treat heat-related distress and illnesses.  The entire staff goes through First Aid and CPR each year and is given follow up material on the signs and symptoms of heat illness.
“This is not just for the guests but for each other as well,” Bullock said.  “We sometimes forget that we can be just as vulnerable to heat issues as our guests are.” -

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