Many of the Elmwood Park Zoo animals, from the mightiest cougar to the stealthiest alligator, experience seasonal changes, just like people do!

“There is no universal answer for changes in different animal species when the temperature dips, or seasons change,” said Marina Haynes, General Curator at the Elmwood Park Zoo. “Every animal is an individual but sometimes we can detect patterns of change in their behavior.” 

Whenever animal care staff notices changes in an animal’s behavior, they analyze what is happening to see if they can figure out the cause and if there needs to be concern or changes in the animal’s husbandry, said Haynes.

A Temperamental species

Penny, the Elmwood Park Zoo’s own American Alligator, is one animal in the zoo that splits her time between indoor and outdoor exhibits. Many ectotherms (cold-blooded animals), like Penny, have to move indoors because they cannot survive winter temperatures.

Even though Penny was living in an indoor exhibit with steady temperatures, once outdoor temperatures started to climb, her behavior changed. Her activity level increased dramatically because she sensed that it was getting warmer out. Animal care staff knew right away that Penny was saying she wanted to go back outside, though it was a bit too early to be safe.

Zookeepers wait until the final frost date of the season to move Penny, so she can stay outside without fear of the cold. If it is too cold, ectotherms can have trouble moving, and their bodily systems, such as digestion, slow down. This could cause food to decompose inside of the alligator’s digestive tract.

“Climate change is affecting when animals want to be moved,” said Haynes.  “It used to be more predictable when seasons would change and temperatures would be within certain ranges but now we can have 80 degrees day in March and 50 degree days in June. This makes it challenging to know when it is safe for animals to be outside.”

Similarly, when the temperature dips, animals are moved to their indoor enclosures for the colder months. Zoos across the world have developed charts to understand when animals can access indoor and outdoor enclosures to best keep them safe.

A moody mammal

Sometimes an animal can get stressed when something changes in their environment. Animal care staff will monitor an animal with extra caution if they begin to lose weight, lose their appetite, or change their behavior from what they normally do. Sometimes the portions or contents of their meals will be evaluated and a health assessment will be conducted by the veterinary team to make sure there is not an underlying illness.

The Elmwood Park Zoo cougars have exhibited nervous behavior because they are not as acclimated to the presence of humans. This behavior makes sense since these cougars were wild orphans. Their mother was killed by a rancher so they have the natural wariness of humans that wild animals naturally possess.

Because of this, the cougars hide when school groups visit the zoo or when the zoo is very crowded. The excited screams and loud noises that larger crowds make startles them. The cougars are much less nervous in the winter months, when crowds are smaller and quieter.

With lots of time building relationships with animal care staff, the cougars have gotten calmer and more likely to make themselves seen, especially in the late afternoon when it is quieter. If you’re lucky, a cougar may lock eyes with you during your next Elmwood Park Zoo visit!

Written by Paige Miller