The heat of summer has arrived at the Chattanooga Zoo.
Just as area residents are scrambling to acquire air conditioners, fans and extra water to endure the heat at the outset of summer, Stacy Laberdee, general curator for the zoo, has more than 100 animals in her charge that need to stay cool.
Like a museum curator oversees a collection of art, Laberdee oversees the entire animal collection and the keepers who take care of them.
"We make a lot of ice treats for our animals during these summer months," Laberdee said as she watched animal keeper Hunter Williams prepare to care for Red Rock, a Scottish Highlands bison hybrid in the petting zoo section of the Warner Park complex.
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"We use ice-cube trays for our treats, like when you were a kid," she said.
The 1,500-pound bison watched curiously as Williams carried a white 5-gallon bucket containing his frozen treat. He lumbered closer as the animal keeper dipped the treat into his watering reservoir.
Upon leaving the fenced bison area, Williams called out to Red Rock. Then he returned to the trough and showed the cool treat to the bison again.
"I just gave Red Rock a frozen block treat that has different kinds of fruits and veggies in it," he said. "And that's just to cool him down because he gets really hot in the summer."
"He likes to stick his face in his water to get cool," Laberdee said. "And we do shave his belly in the summer months."
The Chattanooga Zoo has about 100 big animals that visitors see in the main collection, Laberdee said.
The zoo's exhibits are displayed according to the geographic regions represented: South America, Africa, North America and Asia.
Not all of the animals at the Chattanooga Zoo live completely outside. Many of the foreign species require cooler, air-conditioned spaces that are closer to their natural habitats.
"Some of these animals are more acclimated to cold temperatures, like the red pandas and snow leopards. So, for those guys, we do have to have air-conditioned spaces," Laberdee said. Those animals have thick fur and pads on their feet for walking in snow.
On the other hand, the zoo's camels are more suited to the warmer temperatures because they come from the desert and can store water in their humps. Their keepers make sure there is fresh water for them.
The South American capybaras love their large pool and swim regularly.
"We have two of them that are sisters," Laberdee said. "That is Buttercup and Noreena, named after the characters in 'The Princess Bride.'"
The capybaras, the largest rodents in the world love to swim and are found in rivers and streams below the equator.
But many other of the zoo's animals are not accustomed to being in water, so the keepers must get creative to keep them cool.
"Chimpanzees are not ones that would usually get in water. But they are very food-motivated," she said.
The staff will float things in the water and let the chimps fish them out. This serves as a way to get their hands and limbs wet in a different way, according to the curator.
"Primates are always the fun ones to give ice treats to because they are smart enough to hold on to them — manipulate them," she said.
Other than the farm animals in the petting zoo, all species at the Chattanooga Zoo are wild.
"A few animals we can get up to and interact with them a little," Laberdee said. "But we don't pick them up and pet them. They are not pets."
The staff at the zoo manages the movement of animals like a "shifting office space," according to the curator.
Or by just handling them through a protected barrier. The exception would be an emergency.
"We always maintain our distance," Laberdee said. "We respect their space."