Born six weeks premature, Fiona the hippo didn’t stand much chance of survival. She couldn’t nurse. She was severely underweight. And it was the middle of winter. Within 30 minutes of birth, her temperature had dropped dangerously.
Unable to regulate her own body temperature, “she wasn’t ready to be out in the world,” says Christina Gorsuch, curator of mammals at the Cincinnati Zoo, where zookeepers worked around the clock to keep the newborn hippo alive. To give Fiona a fighting chance, zoo staff removed the calf from the hippo exhibit to a makeshift intensive care unit with a controlled climate and a steady temperature of 98 degrees Fahrenheit.
“So that was our first big hurdle—keeping her warm and getting her temperature up to the 98 to 100-degree range, which is normal for a hippo,” Gorsuch says.
It took several days, but the staff’s attentive care, combined with the facility’s climate control solutions, helped the baby hippo gain a foothold on life in those crucial first hours.
Nearly a year later, against all odds, Fiona the hippo is thriving. She now weighs 570 pounds, occupies the zoo’s hippo exhibit with her parents, and has become something of an internet celebrity with her own Facebook page and more than 230,000 followers.
Fiona’s story is just one example of how critical climate control can be for zoos, which often house critters in facilities far away from their natural habitats, in climates that are sometimes drastically different from their native homes. That’s why zoos and aquariums across the globe work closely with architects and contractors to devise climate control solutions to help keep their animals healthy and comfortable.
Building climate-controlled habitats
From carefully controlled indoor enclosures to heated outdoor dens and cleverly concealed air conditioners, zoos employ a wide range of climate control solutions to mimic their residents’ natural habitats.
“Zoos and aquariums make major investments to recreate exhibits that mirror the natural habitat of each animal, whether the animal resides at a zoological park or aquarium,” says exhibit designer Outside the Lines. “These wildlife exhibits feature climate control, waterfalls, lakes and rockwork that help them live a healthy and fulfilling life.”
Hippos like Fiona, for example, are native to the tropical savannah climate of sub-Saharan Africa, where temperatures remain hot even during the coolest time of the year. Weighing more than a ton, hippos must spend their days in the water to remain cool.
That’s a sharp contrast to Cincinnati, where temperatures can dip below 30 degrees Fahrenheit in January.
Using automation, electronic monitoring, and other cutting-edge advances, however, today’s increasingly intelligent and complex climate control systems work constantly to keep the animals within their comfort zones—despite the unpredictable winters and record-breaking heatwaves of recent years.
Responding to veterinary emergencies
While zoos rely primarily on permanently installed systems to regulate each exhibit’s climate, they occasionally need to enact temporary climate control measures, as well. Emergencies happen, and sometimes the animals need extra help regulating their body temperatures.
For example, when the Tulsa Zoo’s white rhino, Buzbie, broke a tooth this summer, zookeepers had to call in an air conditioning expert as well as a dental specialist. They needed help keeping the 4,000-pound rhino’s temperature down during the July procedure.
From mobile cooling units to heaters to dehumidifiers, climate control experts can employ a variety of equipment to create the temporary conditions zookeepers need to provide their charges with the best care possible.
Modern climate control systems have drastically improved the lives of animals in captivity, reducing their susceptibility to disease and improving their chances of successful breeding. Without a carefully controlled climate available during those first few hours of Fiona the hippo’s life, her story might have turned out very differently.
Her 230,000 Facebook fans are glad it didn’t.