Winterizing Giraffes

The Fort Wayne Children's Zoo provides winter housing to its giraffes.

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Mystic, a giraffe at the Children’s Zoo, checks out the walkie-talkie of giraffe handler Sarah Cox.

Prepping for the cold

Zoo, Parkview Field use winter to plan for next year’s season

Zuri, left, and her daughter Zahra investigate what Sarah Cox, part-time handler at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, is doing outside their winter enclosure.
Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
The seven giraffes at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo have been moved to their spacious winterized enclosure where they will stay until April when the zoo reopens. The giraffes are allowed outside on days that are above 45 degrees.

– It could be several months before Fort Wayne’s tallest 4-year-olds can get outside and play.

Unless the outdoor temp hits 50 degrees, or maybe 45, so long as it’s a sunny day, Zahra and Ezeji, and the other five giraffes owned by the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, will have to spend most of the upcoming winter in their indoor facility.

Like it or not, the seasonal chill will be on us. On this very day, we are closer to 2014 than we are to the second week of August, which doesn’t seem that long ago. So if you’re not prepared, best get to it, whether that means putting snow tires on the family roadster or finding your mittens stuffed in a forgotten coat pocket.

Like hammering plywood across windows before a hurricane makes landfall, two of the city’s more iconic warm-weather attractions are already preparing for the cold months ahead, and both will re-open for their primary businesses next April. Until then, how do the zoo and Parkview Field, home of the Class A TinCaps of the Midwest League, get through the winter?

“When you’re winterizing a 47-acre facility, all the (outside) water lines need to be shut down,” says Cheryl Piropato, education and communications director at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. “The lion head drinking fountain – everybody’s favorite drinking fountain – we have to turn that off when the weather gets cold. A lot of the landscaping, a lot of tree-trimming happens in the off season. The rides have to be disassembled. On the Sky Safari ride, which is a refurbished ski lift, all the chairs have to come off. The train engine gets sent for kind of a major tune-up every year. The boat ride is tuned and scrubbed.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to do a lot of planning, as well. We’ve already started our planning, obviously, for 2014. It gives us a chance to carry it out. We do a lot of education programs in the winter. We’re on the road every day in schools. We see about 40,000 kids a year with those programs.”

Piropato said all of the estimated 1,000 animals than can be seen when the facility is open to the public remain on the zoo grounds through the winter months. The only exceptions are the ponies for the pony rides. They go with their owners.

Just as some portions of the zoo facility remain open – the guest services, the gift shop – Parkview Field isn’t shut down completely.

Although the baseball season ended in September, the field served as the finish line for the popular Fort4Fitness run, which attracted more than 10,000 participants.

Luncheons, a fireworks show and even a New Year’s Eve party will keep the facility active.

“We won’t keep all the rooms heated,” TinCaps general manager Mike Nutter says. “Back at the old ballpark (Memorial Stadium), about this time a year, they would shut off the water to all the locker rooms and clubhouses. … Here, we just keep rollin’.”

It’s the field itself that gets most of the cold weather preparation.

“The only thing we winterize is our irrigation system, so we have to shut that off and blow the lines out,” says Keith Winter, head groundskeeper.

“For the field itself, we winterize with a series of the right kind of fertilization applications that fights snow mold. Snow mold is a fungus that happens when grass is under a cover of snow too long. We usually do that in late November or early December. Then it’s just keeping our clay surfaces – our mound and our infield – getting those in the right shape to get through the winter so when they come out in the spring, we’re ready to play ball once the team gets back in town.”

Across town at the zoo, the participants don’t leave town; some just have winter living quarters.

The exceptions would be the sea lions and otters, who can tolerate the cold weather and stay outdoors.

“The other category is animals that we have to specifically move off of their exhibit space and put into a different building, for example the monkeys, off of monkey island,” Piropato says. “They don’t have a little winter house adjacent. We have to actually move them to a different building. … With the monkeys, we’re not going to crate them up, haul them out, let ’em out on monkey island for an hour of a day because it would take all day.”

But for the seven giraffes, their winter home, a converted barn that can house up to 12 giraffes, is adjacent to their summer exhibit.

“They get a little rowdy at times,” says Sarah Cox, who works with the animals. “When they get to go outside they get really, really excited.”

Adds Piropato: “The downtime gives us a chance to catch up on maintenance projects that we just don’t have the staff to do when we’re busy serving our guests. That downtime gives us an opportunity to catch up, if you will. We’re just so busy getting the job done every day of the summer time that this gives us a little bit of a breather.

“We know once we get to about March, then the pre-opening frenzy grips us, and there’s no going back at that point. Everything you do is getting ready to open, and once the zoo is opened, then the focus completely shifts to serving the guests and making sure everything is the way it has to be for the guests to have a great experience.”