The Presidents' Day weekend blizzard presented some special challenges for the National Zoo, where some employees wound up sleeping in the Ape House and other zoo facilities as they tended to nearly 3,000 animals and worked to keep essential roadways and exhibit paths cleared of snow.
The zoo, which normally is open every day but Christmas, had to close for four days -- Feb. 16 through 19 -- because of the storm and its aftermath. But nearly two dozen employees, including keepers, curators and the grounds crew, stayed at the park through the long holiday weekend.
"We had a BYOS party -- Bring Your Own Shovel -- to help dig out," said Belinda Reser, an assistant curator who oversees care of the apes and giant pandas. "It was a good team effort all around."
Reser and other zoo staff from the Ape House, the Elephant House, the Bird House and the lion and tiger exhibit made sure the animals were fed and warm and that some could get into their yards once the storm cleared. The grounds crew put in long hours during the storm, then had to get the zoo ready to reopen Feb. 20.
For some, such as Reser, and keeper Nicole Meese, an animal emergency kept them at their posts even before the storm started. An ailing orangutan, Junior, needed round-the-clock monitoring when his condition worsened Feb. 14. The 36-year-old male ape, who had severe age-related arthritis, was euthanized Feb. 16.
For humans, working through the storm was eased by an adaptable spirit -- and a little help from neighbors. The Starbucks shop across the street from the zoo's Connecticut Avenue entrance came through with free and reduced-price coffee and muffins. The nearby Omni Shoreham Hotel provided six free rooms that some staffers used the first two days of the storm. And Uno's in Cleveland Park sent over about 20 free pizzas that Tuesday.
"We didn't realize how long we'd be here," said Meese, who lives in Silver Spring.
On Feb. 14, Valentine's Day, some staff members slept on the floor in the Ape House. Reser had an air mattress and Meese, a sleeping bag. Another keeper brought in cardboard egg crates to sleep on. The next night, the employees slept on the floor in the zoo's Think Tank, where animal researchers work with orangutans to build learning skills.
The horticulture staff worked with the animal care staff to clear pathways at the exhibits.
"The main thing was to be able to get into the animal areas to service the exhibits and make sure the animals were all right," said Reser, of Herndon, who shoveled a pathway around the yard of the giant pandas, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang.
The pandas, like all the other animals, were kept indoors during the storm. But the playful pair, who enjoy cold weather, later exhausted themselves rolling and tumbling in the snow.
Some employees brought extra food and a change of clothes. Those who didn't used a microwave to heat frozen meals from a staff refrigerator. A shower at the Think Tank and laundry facilities in the Ape House also came in handy.
The zoo's police force also did its part, with some officers using their four-wheel-drive vehicles to help transport other staff members to the zoo. The police also had a supply of blankets and even made runs to a pharmacy, such as when Meese was caught without her allergy medication.
Roscoe Harper, an assistant foreman with the facilities crew, and Miles Simmons, a biotechnician supervisor with the horticulture staff, were among those who worked from Saturday morning through Monday afternoon of the holiday weekend to keep essential areas cleared of snow.
Using plows and snowblowers, the crew cleared Olmstead Walk and the road to the veterinary hospital "in case an animal needed emergency aid,'' Harper said. Veterinarians were on call, and veterinarian keeper Stephen Schulze remained in the zoo's hospital throughout the storm.
Harper said "a call went out to the keepers to put all the animals inside in case we had to go into a yard."
When the storm ended, some elephants -- including year-old Kandula, who now weighs about 1,250 pounds -- ventured out briefly, said elephant keeper Lisa Belitz. But giraffe keeper Erin Jewell said going outside wasn't an option for the giraffes, because they might slip on the snow or ice.
Some of those tending to the elephants and giraffes relied on cereal bars and old Valentine's Day candy to keep them going -- and were delighted at the chance to sleep at the Omni Shoreham.
"It definitely beats sleeping in the Elephant House," Belitz said.