What Do You Do With An Alligator In The Winter? Ask The Pittsburgh Zoo

Jan 3, 2017

Otis, a 10-foot-long, 450-pound North American alligator rested his head against the cool exterior of his well-heated indoor pen.

It’s where he vacations each winter when it’s too cold to stay outdoors at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Otis summers in a pond inside Kids Kingdom and moving him to the reptile building just behind the elephant exhibit takes up to 12 people and some serious muscle, once they get him inside his crate.

A flamingo extends its neck to nibble on a plant while in an indoor facility for the winter.
Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

“He’s actually pretty good,” said animal curator Henry Kacprzyk. “It’s like one of those things you see in the movies about Africa or in a documentary about moving an animal in Africa. There’s a lot to moving a big crocodilian like this.”

Kacprzyk looks after Otis and his fellow reptiles, including two 160-pound Galapagos tortoises, Philippine crocodiles and a variety of other smaller species. For several months every year, these animals live in the reptile building complete with heated floors, pools and a thermostat set to a toasty 82 degrees.

Though the zoo employees do their best to accommodate the animals, they can’t control the weather. And many of the critters, big and small, aren’t quite equipped to deal with the region's chilly temperatures and icy conditions.

“A very large animal that is not very cold tolerant? A giraffe,” Kacprzyk said.

A male African lion rests on a heated rock inside its enclosure.
Credit Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

Kacpryzk said giraffes thermo-regulate via their neck, and once the temperature drops to about 40 degrees, they move into a barn. Plus, Kacprzyk said, if it’s a wet day, a giraffe on ice would be disastrous.  

“We wouldn’t put them out at all because there’s no way of setting a broken leg on a giraffe,” he said.

Other animals, though not native to the cold, seem to enjoy some winter perks. The zoo’s big cats, such as the lions and cheetahs, are free to go back and forth between their outdoor enclosures and a warm indoor facility. And if the large, silky-maned lions are resting on the rock in their exhibit, that’s because it’s heated all winter. 

“They can make the choice on their own whether they want to go out or come inside,” Kacprzyk said. 

And, of course, there's one type of animal that loves the cold weather -- the zoo's polar bears, which have their own set of special requirements in the summer, including an air conditioned cave. 

"Obviously we don't need to run that this time of year," Kacprzyk said.