Cold Weather Critters – Winter at Two Michigan Zoos

Have you ever wondered what happens at zoos around Pure Michigan when the temperatures drop and the snow starts to fall? Instead of hibernating, our furry, scaly and feathered friends receive excellent care around the clock, with a few of them hoping you’ll visit!

Read more on what Pure Michigan’s zoo animals do in the winter via guest bloggers Dan Malone of John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids and Jennie Miller of the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak.

Dan Malone – John Ball Zoo

While John Ball Zoo closes its gates to the public from November thru February, its business as usual for the animals and zookeepers. There’s still so much that goes on behind closed doors! Winter truly transforms the zoo into a wonderland for the animals. Most of Zoo’s 1,400-plus animal residents spend the cold, snowy season in toasty, warm indoor quarter’s right here in the Zoo.

Animals that can tolerate winter temperatures go in and out as usual over the colder months. The tigers, bears, otters, cougars and snow leopards, to name a few, simply love the snow and cold.  Many warm weather animals enjoy time outside during warmer winter days. The chimpanzees especially like to go on a winter “hike”, though they prefer to keep their feet dry. They carefully navigate their exhibit following in the footsteps of the Zookeepers or restricting themselves to sheltered, grassy areas. To be sure the animals stay comfortable, they have access to their indoor dens so they can warm up whenever they please.

Zookeepers especially enjoy finding clever ways to keep the animals busy and stimulated without the traffic of visitors.  This kind of animal care is called enrichment and is practiced all year on almost all animal species. Enrichment enhances the animals’ behavioral, physical, social and psychological well-being.  The practice encourages those natural behaviors like foraging, stalking, scent marking, climbing, scratching, etc.   The “art” of administering enrichment is to keep it consistently inconsistent.  This can be anything from having the penguins chase minnows around their tank to introducing a new scent to the ‘big cats’, namely the tigers and snow leopard.

Photo Courtesy of John Ball Zoo

Photo Courtesy of John Ball Zoo

So while John Ball Zoo is closed during the winter months, there’s still so much happening with your animal friends. See you for our spring opening on March 12!

Jennie Miller – Detroit Zoo

With fewer guests and more active animals, a winter visit to the Detroit Zoo for a healthy dose of “Vitamin Z” is the ultimate cool experience.

The Detroit Zoo is open 362 days a year, and winter is a magnificent time to see animals both indoors and out. Many animals are especially active in the colder winter months, including the gray wolves, wolverines, Japanese macaques, tigers, camels, polar bears, arctic foxes and red pandas.  The Detroit Zoo also has many indoor areas to explore, including the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat, the Matilda R. Wilson Free-Flight Aviary, the Butterfly Garden, the Holden Reptile Conservation Center, the National Amphibian Conservation Center, the Great Apes of Harambee and the Penguinarium. While it’s too cold for the giraffes and rhinos to be outside, there are indoor viewing areas for visitors to see these majestic animals year round.

Photo Courtesy of The Detroit Zoo

Photo Courtesy of The Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoo ensures the safety of animals all year round, so those that are sensitive to colder temperatures are provided with access to warm places and extra materials that help with insulation. Providing animals with the choice of where to spend their time is important regardless of temperatures, and the Zoo does this whenever possible. Some animals may change their behavior patterns in colder months, which can include how active they are or how much they eat. Many of the animals really enjoy the winter months and take full advantage of the colder temperatures and snow.

On select nights through December 31, visitors can enjoy Wild Lights, presented by Bank of America, and experience five million LED lights on trees, buildings and more than 100 animal sculptures along a path through the front half of the Detroit Zoo. USA Today has nominated Wild Lights as among the Best Zoo Lights in the nation. Vote in their readers’ poll before December 23rd! Other activities include photos with Santa (through December 23), the Polar Express 4-D Experience, arts and crafts, ice sculptures, and the 22-foot-tall, 150-foot-long Polar Plunge snow slide!

Photo Courtesy of The Detroit Zoo

Photo Courtesy of The Detroit Zoo

What is your favorite animal found at the Zoo? Share with us below!

Dan Malone

Dan Malone received his BS degree from Michigan State University, zoology major. He worked as a manager in a restaurant for 25 before he landing his zookeeper job at John Ball Zoo. Dan’s responsibilities as an animal care supervisor include supervising, interviewing and hiring the zookeepers.  He has had a lifelong interest in reptiles and amphibians, primarily snakes and has been involved with the care and breeding of a number of snake species for over 30 years. Follow John Ball Zoo on Facebook and Instagram.

Jennie Miller

Jennie Miller is the communications manager for the Detroit Zoological Society, which operates the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Zoo and was recently named the 2015 Best-Managed Nonprofit by Crain’s Detroit Business. Follow the Detroit Zoo on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

5 Can’t-Miss Winter Sports to Experience This Season

To love Michigan is to love living in a four-season state.Whether you’re a full-time resident or just visiting the Great Lakes state, coming to Michigan means that for a few months out of the year, you’ll experience the beauty of winter and all of the activities and events that come along with it.

When temperatures falls, so does the snow, giving all a chance to participate in some of their favorite winter activities. From a friendly snowball fight in your backyard to cross-country skiing adventure in the back woods, Michigan offers some great ways to make memories during the winter season.

So, grab your favorite hot drink and take a look at five ways to celebrate the winter season in Michigan:

1. Skiing

Michigan offers many ways for people to enjoy skiing, from the rush of going downhill to witnessing the beauty around them by leisurely traversing a wooded trail.

With some of the best downhill skiing in the Midwest, Michigan’s pitch and vertical drops are are some of the most thrilling in the nation. The state is home to 51 ski destinations, ranking it second in the country in number of ski areas. For a slightly slower, but no less of a fun time, consider cross country skiing.  Enthusiasts and newcomers to the sport can enjoy the tranquility of more than 3,000 miles of snow-covered trails with beautiful winter landscapes serving as the backdrop. And don’t forget the snowboarding!

Photo Courtesy of Treetops Resort

Photo Courtesy of Treetops Resort

2. Sledding

Probably one of the easiest and the most fun you can have on a Michigan winter day is spending time just being a kid. Want some thrills and know of a big hill in the area? Grab your sled and go have some fun. Another great way to have fun that is also growing in popularity is snow tubing. Check out one of Michigan’s state or your local county parks for facilities set up especially for sledding and snow tubing, where you can feel the sting of the cold air on your face as your sled careens down a hill.

3. Snowmobiling

Feel the rev of an engine as you race through snow-covered trails and frozen lakes on a snowmobile during a Michigan winter. With more than 6,500 groomed snowmobiling trails, Michigan has one of the most extensive systems of interconnected trails in the nation. From state and national forests, to 11,000 frozen lakes, snowmobilers can experience a great adventure each time they head out for a ride.

Photo Courtesy of Instagrammer @AndyPeninger

Photo Courtesy of Instagrammer @AndyPeninger

4. Snowshoeing

Snowshoeing in Michigan is a great way to see the tranquil beauty of the winter season.Not all of Michigan’s wildlife scurries off for warmer climates or hibernation as you might get a chance to see rabbits, deer and fox as you trek along the state’s thousands of miles of trails. Snowshoe through the woods, breathing air filled with smells of the forest, hearing nothing but the sound of your own footsteps. Snowshoeing in Michigan offers outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers a respite among picturesque trails and terrains.

5. Pond Hockey

Michigan has a strong tradition when it comes to hockey, and winter weather provides the perfect chance to lace up your skates and have a blast. With more than 11,000 frozen inland lakes, there’s an opportunity to drop the puck anywhere you turn. Whether you’re just learning how to skate or are dreaming of one day playing at Joe Louis Area, all you need is some thick ice, skates, a hockey stick and some friends, and you’re ready to spend an afternoon enjoying the outdoors. Be sure to check out the Labatt Blue U.P. Pond Hockey Championship in St. Ignace this February!


What are your favorite winter activities? Share with us below!

Walking With Nature: Destination Traverse City

The spectacular landscape that embraces the Traverse City area is an ever-changing masterpiece created over centuries by the earth-moving power of ice, wind and water. No matter what the season, nature lovers will find trails and natural areas to fuel their passions. Read more on the beauty of TC, as shared by guest blogger Jonathan Schechter.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”  — John Muir

Spring is the gateway to wildflowers and migratory birds at places like the Grass River Natural Area. Summer allows explorers to roam the Manitou Islands in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Autumn is perfect for a paddling trip down the Platte River, and in the stillness of winter, the multitude of cross-country ski pathways and snowshoe trails is proof that the outdoor lure of Traverse City is strong and growing.

Look Out

Why wait? Today is the perfect day to walk with nature.

The Grass River Natural Area is a hidden treasure of Antrim County encompassing 1,433 acres. Spring is the perfect season to view the moss-covered hummocks of land along the clear waters of Finch Creek. Sit silently on a bench under the sweetly scented cedars; nature will share her secrets. During my last visit I watched a mink bound over the boardwalk, heard a hidden grouse drumming from behind lush vegetation and found fresh bobcat tracks – all in a matter of five minutes.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with its 70 miles of shoreline, magnificent sand dunes and trails for every taste, lures millions of outdoor enthusiasts.  Two of its beautiful treasures are the Manitou Islands – and a visit to these isolated spots makes a rewarding summer adventure.


South Manitou Island is a perfect destination for a day hiker with its lighthouse – a stark reminder of the stormy seas and shipwrecks of the Manitou Passage – and the wreck of the Francisco Morazan, a favorite haunt for cormorants. For a more rugged adventure, North Manitou offers opportunities for backpacking treks – just remember that your visit might be extended an extra day or two if the waters are too rough for the ferry to return.

The crystal-clear Platte River is well known among anglers for steelhead, salmon and trout, but it can get busy on summer days as kayakers and canoeists paddle downstream. A much better option is to go in the autumn, when the wildlife returns and the fall foliage puts on a brilliant show. Bring your own craft or rent at Riverside Canoe Trips. Seekers of solitude and wildlife may want to paddle during the morning mist; dawn is an unforgettable moment to embrace this landscape, which defines the essence of Pure Michigan.


In winter Traverse City has miles and miles of woodland trails for skiers and snowshoers to explore. In the Brown Bridge Quiet Area you can even witness the rebirth of Traverse City’s Boardman River, whose system of dams is being removed, returning this beautiful stream to a time when she was wild and free.  You can get a close-up look at this process at Brown Bridge, a 1300-acre nature preserve just south of town. This broad river meadow, surrounded by high hills, was once the site of a wide forest pond, but today you can hike along its former shoreline and see how nature (with lots of human help) has been healing and renewing the valley.

On my last visit it was winter, and I made my way through deep snow, warmed by the sweet scent of cedar and balsam fir and invigorated by the bounding tracks of a river otter.  It’s a wonderful wild place in the shadows of Traverse City!

bioJonathan Schechter is a Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks, a member of the Wilderness Medical Society and an avid hiker and trail-explorer at Sleeping Bear Dunes.