Zoo animals beat heat

Just monkeying around, this juvenile spider monkey is undaunted by the afternoon heat Wednesday at Hillcrest Zoo in Clovis. (Staff photo: Sharna Johnson)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

The camel at the Hillcrest Park Zoo is shedding. Strands of thick hair dangle from its side. Patches of skin are revealed in a haphazard pattern, in what appears to be a haircut gone wrong.

But according to assistant zoo director Vincent Romero it’s all natural — part of the dromedary’s defense against rising temperatures, which this week, have soared into the triple digits.

“It rolls in the mud, scratches against trees, trying to get rid of that coat,” Romero said of Sahara the camel’s unsightly summer shedding.

Although many animals like Sahara have built-in defenses against the heat, and local zookeepers say many of them are better equipped than humans to deal with extreme temperatures, employees at Hillcrest aid in the cooling down process, attempting, foremost, they say, to replicate natural habitats at the zoo.

The water bowls of most of the larger animals, such as the giraffe and the bison, are designed to refill automatically once empty, said zoo clerk Laura Shepler. Hoses lie coiled outside many of the smaller animal enclosures, ready to distribute water. The zoo’s six spider monkeys, once sun burnt before a new enclosure was finished, now enjoy an air-conditioned shelter.

“The zoo is like an oasis in the desert,” said Romero, pointing to the park’s thick, elm tree canopy. The canopy, he said, is an imported, and important, source of shade for the zoo’s animal melange.

As Romero strolls around the 22 1/2-acre animal park, the black-handed spider monkeys greet him with funny little faces, mouths agape, teeth playfully bared; the Siberian tiger marks the zookeeper’s approach with a series of gentle, low-throated “purrs.” Although the animals’ native lands range across continents, Africa, Asia, and America — the mountains indigenous to some, the dense forests of North America home to others, the Siberian tiger Blondy rescued from a trailer — Romero explains animals, including humans, are more alike than different, in their basic need for a retreat from the sun and plenty of water.

Hillcrest zoo dietitian Lisa Fox said animal behavior shifts slightly in the summer.

“The animals slow down. They would rather eat in the cool hours of the morning and the evening,” said Fox, who sometimes gives the animals hose baths to fend off the heat, when they are not lounging in their constructed indoor shelters.

“The heat is a factor, but we deal with it — it’s not a big problem for us. We are used to dealing with the elements,” Romero said.

But for Jennifer King, who stood staring at a bear on Wednesday, encaged, pacing, and panting in the heat, a trip to the zoo, regardless of season, sits heavily on her conscience.

“I always think ‘let’s go to the zoo, that would be fun.’ But once I get here, I just end up depressed. … Some of the animals have big, grassy areas to play around in, some have terrible areas,” said King, a Philadelphian who was especially critical of the bear’s pen, with no visible source of water.

Shepler said the bear does have a pool to cool off in, similar to the one Blondy the tiger is often found playing in; however, the one closer to the animal viewing area is broken. She said there is also a water bowl for drinking purposes inside the bear’s shelter.

“He doesn’t always pace like that. In the winter, he dug his own underground den — which is perfectly normal bear behavior,” Shepler said.

“Our intentions,” reads a Hillcrest Park Zoo history hand-out, “are to continue improving and enhancing existing structures.”

The zoo is financed almost solely by the city of Clovis, but it has also received donations from citizens and area civic organizations.