Handlers work to keep animals warm

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If it’s too cold in Southwestern Pennsylvania for a snow monkey, then surely it’s too cold for humans. Yet animal handlers like Grant Kemmerer, director of exotic animal business Wild World of Animals in Eighty Four, brave the elements to ensure every creature is safe and reasonably warm.


Kemmerer, originally from Miami, said the animals typically fare better in extreme cold than extreme heat, but several precautions still need to be taken. He said many animals stayed outside in previous winters, but were moved into a greenhouse with a natural gas heater this year.


“It’s just been so intensely cold,” he said. “We’ve moved a number of animals in that normally could handle an entire winter (outdoors).”


One of those species is the Japanese macaque, or snow monkey, which Kemmerer said is the “northernmost primate other than man.” So, naturally, it is accustomed to cold climates. However, with the polar vortex and below-freezing temperatures in the region, the cold was too extreme for the macaque this year. A wind chill advisory remains in effect until noon today and the high is expected to be just 13 degrees, but then temperatures are expected to rise.


Other animals, like “big cats,” bears and wolves, are unfazed by the cold and kept dry in insulated shelters. It may seem the animals – some hailing from Africa and tropical locales – are handling the cold better than the locals.


Kemmerer said the extreme temperatures caused locks and doors leading to animal enclosures to freeze shut, and they need to be broken loose with a sledgehammer. If a plastic kennel is dropped, it could shatter to pieces in the cold.


“It’s just brutal and very difficult,” he said.


Kemmerer’s mother-in-law, Jan Marchezak, runs a petting zoo in Eighty Four and also cares for exotic animals like camels and zebras. She said the hardest part is constantly removing ice from the animals’ drinking containers.


Even getting dressed is a daunting process. Typical winter attire includes Under Armour, jeans, insulated coveralls, a turtleneck, two pairs of winter socks and five pairs of gloves because they constantly get wet and need to be changed throughout the day.


“Basically, the animals are taken care of,” Marchezak said. “It’s the people who are out there with wet, frozen gloves on.”


Marchezak’s son, Jeremy Ivcic, said the animals essentially have free reign over whether they leave the barn and venture outside during the day. He said many of the animals went outside Tuesday, although he could tell they weren’t enjoying the frigid air.


“They all went prancing outside, and they were out eating, and there’s about 20 of them standing out in the little bit of sunshine that’s coming through,” he said. “You look at them, and they look as bad as us, hunched up. It’s cold. You see their body language that way.”


He said they still fare pretty well in the cold, and even the zebras got some fresh air. The only animal that required some extra assistance from a heat lamp was an infant pot-bellied pig – the only newborn at the petting zoo.


While some of the larger animals can manage even in extreme temperatures, there is always a greater concern for small pets.


Laurelle Dicks, general manager of the Washington Area Humane Society, said its humane officer received 150 calls just this month from people concerned about dogs they spotted outside.


Dicks said nine times out of 10, the dogs were already inside by the time the humane officer showed up to investigate.


“They’re very understanding when (the officer) does show up,” Dicks said of the dog owners. “Dogs do have to go to the bathroom, and they’re going to go outside.”


The Meadows racetrack cancelled all horse races Tuesday because of below-freezing temperatures. Kim Hankins, executive director of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, said races are typically canceled only once or twice a year when it snows, but the wind chill value is also taken into account. Early Tuesday, the wind chill dipped to nearly minus 30.


“The people that take care of the horses have to get their horses to the paddock, and also the horses have to warm up and race in it,” Hankins said. “We’re looking out for the health and welfare for the horses and the drivers.”


Much to the delight of both animals and their human caretakers, temperatures are supposed to steadily rise, with a predicted high of 41 degrees Saturday.


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