Topeka Zoo's tricks to keep animals cool in summer swelter include dirt, air-conditioning and bloodsicles

Tim Hrenchir
Topeka Capital-Journal
Badar, a 19-month-old male tiger at the Topeka Zoo, bares his teeth Thursday while cooling off in a pool in his exhibit.

The Topeka Zoo's tigers enjoy their own, carnivorous version of the popsicle.

"We call them 'bloodsicles,'" says Shanna Simpson, the zoo's animal care supervisor.

The zoo serves those iced treats, made from animal blood, to its five Sumatran tigers to help them chill out on hot days, such as those Topeka has experienced this week.

Topeka temperatures soared Thursday to a high of 99 degrees, with the heat index reaching a maximum of 112.

The mercury here has reached 100 degrees this year on two days, June 17 and 18, according to the website of the National Weather Service's Topeka office.

The capital city earlier this week saw a maximum temperature and heat index of 96 and 106, respectively, on Wednesday; 94 and 106 on Tuesday; and 90 and 94 on Monday.

Topeka's St. Francis Campus of the University of Kansas Health Center treated one patient Wednesday and one patient Tuesday for symptoms related to heat illness, said Nancy Burkhardt, director of marketing and communications at that facility.

"One was an elderly person and the other was a younger person who had been working outside," she said.

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Children get up close to the Topeka Zoo's Sumatran tigers, Bintang and Badar. In an effort to keep the tigers cool during hot days, the zoo offers them bloodsicles, or popsicles made from animal blood.

Prolonged heat exposure was given as the reason some patients visited the emergency room this week at Stormont Vail Health, though the specific number of people treated for that reason wasn't available, said Matt Lara, public relations specialist.

The National Weather Service had a heat advisory in effect running through 9 p.m. Friday for northeast Kansas, including Topeka. 

The weather service predicted temperatures would top out at 99 degrees Friday in Shawnee County while the heat index could soar as high as 107.

Forecasters predict Shawnee County will then see high temperatures of 92 Saturday and 86 Sunday, with a chance for rain both days.

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Topeka Zoo makes iced treats to help keep animals cool

Until the oppressive heat ends, the zoo will continued to provide bloodsicles to its tigers and iced treats featuring different types of ingredients to its other animals.

The Topeka Zoo's 8-year-old Bornean orangutan Bumi enjoys an iced treat of fruits in his exhibit Thursday morning.

Two of the big cats, 19-month-old males Badar and Bintang, cooled off Thursday in a shallow pool in the outdoor portion of their habitat, with Badar baring his teeth at a Topeka Capital-Journal photographer. 

The other three tigers took shelter from the summer swelter in the air-conditioned part of their exhibit.

Elsewhere in the zoo, an 8-year-old Bornean orangutan named Bumi could be seen outdoors in his exhibit enjoying an iced treat featuring apples, carrots and Gatorade.

Such treats are delicious and help the animals to hydrate, Simpson said.

She said the zoo makes iced treats that can be as large as barrels for its two elephants, 63-year-old Cora and 52-year-old Tembo.

The zoo needs to keep a close eye on those pachyderms because they are "extremely old elephants," Simpson said.

Still, she said, elephants tend to "do pretty well" in the heat.

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Cora, a 63-year-old Asian elephant at the Topeka Zoo, stays cool by throwing dirt on her body Thursday morning.

The zoo offers its elephants a "mud wallow" area where staff members saturate the dirt with water and the pachyderms can roll in the mud, which is good exercise and also helps protect the elephants from getting sunburnt, Simpson said.

"Anyone with skin can get a sunburn," she said, adding that elephants also sometimes use their snouts to throw dirt on themselves to protect themselves.

The zoo additionally helps Cora and Tembo beat the heat by providing them a giant shade structure; a "misting" system capable of raining down a light mist on them; and the option of going indoors into an area that's air-conditioned.

Still, Cora and Tembo appear to prefer staying outside, Simpson said.

In addition, the elephant exhibit includes a pool staff members can fill up with water for Cora and Tembo.

"But they rarely go in their pool," Simpson said. "The only time we really see them in the pool is when it's raining, which is so ironic."