Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Weathering the Cold at the Zoo

Just like humans, some animals seem to revel in cold weather and snowfall. The animal care team closely monitors temperatures and weather to ensure the wellbeing of our animals.

Many animals (including giant pandas and red pandas) are native to cooler areas and seem to enjoy the winter weather. Even some animals whose habitat includes warmer climates, like great cats and elephants, can acclimatize to the cold.  Most of the animals that can go outside are offered a choice year round—to go outside or to stay in their indoor exhibit. Indoor exhibits are heated in the winter.

Snow Day January 21, 2014

In extreme weather, animals may not be given access to the outdoors. Those that are allowed outdoors have heated and/or sheltered areas within their exhibits. Given that upcoming temperatures are the coldest in decades, the animal care team is taking a careful look at all winter access procedures to ensure our animals’ welfare. Many animals will not be outside. Those that are allowed outside for short periods of time will be monitored and have access to shelter and/or heating elements.

For example:

Snow Day January 21, 2014
  • Lions, tigers, maned wolves, and many other animals have heated dens and bedding where they can cozy up.
  • Some animals with water in their exhibit—including Asian small-clawed otters and flamingos—have heated pools.
  • Animals that cannot tolerate the cold—such as the lemurs at Lemur Island and our giant anteaters—are brought inside in the winter.
  • The Zoo’s prairie dogs, dusty-brown denizens of the American West, burrow into their underground tunnels for much of the winter months, as they would in the wild.
  • Giant pandas are native to the cold climate of the western Chinese mountains and are actually more active in the wintertime. Panda habitat in the high elevations of the mountains is generally damper than our winter weather, but when it comes to temperature, the two climates are very similar. With the pandas’ increased activity and smaller crowds at the Zoo, winter can be the best time to come out and see giant pandas.
  • The Zoo’s lions and tigers, and other animals remain outside in the wintertime, following their normal schedules unless the temperature dips below freezing. Once the temperature drops below this threshold, the keepers assess the animals’ behavior, as well as factors such as wind chill and snowfall, to determine whether or to they should go out. At a temperature of 20 degrees, they are kept inside. Even though we tend to picture these great cats stalking prey on a dusty, sun-cooked savanna or a humid tropical jungle, lions and tigers evolved to withstand cold climates. The Zoo’s cheetahs have heated termite mounds throughout the Cheetah Conservation Station.
  • Snow Day January 21, 2014In the wild, California sea lions range north into Alaskan waters and gray and harbor seals are adapted to life in arctic waters. At the Zoo, our seals and sea lions have heated rocks and beaches in their pools where they can warm up and to prevent ice from forming. They also have sheltered areas where they can get out of the wind.

For more pictures of animals frolicking in the snow visit our Flickr page.

The Zoo’s visitors can stay warm in the winter weather, too. Our animal houses (including the Bird House, Elephant Community Center, Small Mammal House, Great Ape House, Think Tank, Reptile Discovery Center, Invertebrate Exhibit, and Amazonia) are all heated. The rainforest in Amazonia stays at a balmy 80 degrees all year long! The brisk walk among outdoor exhibits and hot beverages from Zoo food outlets also help keep visitors warm.