Winter Fun at the Zoo

Snow leopards at Rosamond Gifford Zoo. Photo by Terri Redhead.
Snow leopards at Rosamond Gifford Zoo. Photo by Terri Redhead.

This winter, visitors can have a more intimate visit with red pandas, snow leopards, Amur tigers, Andean bears and much more at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park

By Mary Beth Roach 

Red pandas. Photo by Mary Beth Roach.
Red pandas. Photo by Mary Beth Roach.

“It’s all happening at the zoo,” wrote singer and songwriter Paul Simon in the Simon and Garfunkel 1967 tune “At the Zoo.”

He could have easily been writing about the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park.

More than 700 animals and 275 species await guests at the 43-acre facility on Syracuse’s west side, and they are hardly hibernating during the winter. It can be a wonderful time for a visit.

“All summer long, they get used to lots of people, lots of colors,” said Ted Fox, zoo director. “In the winter, when there’s fewer people, the animals are much more interested in individuals. They’re much more likely to come up and look you in the face at the exhibits, interact with you a little bit. It’s a different experience.”

Sixty percent of the zoo’s exhibits are actually indoors. The mixed species in The Diversity of Birds are really interactive and the tropical plants throughout are nice to see growing in the middle of winter, according to Fox. Other features indoors include Adaptation of Animals: Nocturnal Animals; USS Antiquities, with its Giant Pacific octopus exhibit, and displays of fish, amphibians and more; and the Social Animals Building, which includes several species of primates as well as meerkats and critically endangered Amur leopards.

Those that choose to go outside during the winter months will not be disappointed. The zoo has many cold-climate species that are very active in the winter, such as red pandas, snow leopards, Amur tigers, Andean bears, Sichuan takin, American bison and Bactrian (two-humped) camels.

Two snow leopard cubs that will be experiencing their first Central New York winter are Ozzy and Strut. They were born this past May, and went on exhibit in September. Zoo officials are expecting them to be quite popular.

They’re like children when they recognize what snow is for the first time, Fox said.

“They’re going to put on a show every day, I’m sure,” he said.

But probably the most popular animals — and what the zoo is most famous for — are its Humboldt penguins, with a colony of nearly three dozen birds, and the elephants, with Siri, being the premiere pachyderm at the Asian Elephant Preserve.

“Many, many, many people and generations have met her through programs here,” Fox said of the 51-year-old Siri. And although she’s aging, she’s being kept very healthy and happy, he added.

One reason for her happy and healthy state is that she’s doing yoga everyday with the staff.

Yes, that’s right, yoga — to keep up her mobility and range of motion. She reaches up to touch something with each leg, and then sideways, in a series of movements her keepers run through daily, Fox explained.

Zoo penguin. Photo by Mary Beth Roach.
Zoo penguin. Photo by Mary Beth Roach.

Siri’s home will soon be getting an upgrade, along with some of the walkways throughout that section of the facility. The 4.5-acre preserve will be expanded to six acres, and a tunnel is being constructed for the elephants along with an elephant crossing where people can encounter the largest land mammals eye to eye.

The nearby white-lipped deer area will see improvements, including a mud wallow to provide them with greater relief from heat and insects. A good deal of the trail is being widened and constructed of materials to make it more accessible, and there will be new viewing areas for visitors to better enjoy the elephants, the white-lipped deer and the red wolf.

It’s not just some of the facilities that are changing. So are some of its programs, especially for adults.

New this winter is the Meet a Keeper Mornings, when people can have up-close animal encounters and one-on-one conversations with the staff, all while enjoying light refreshments, specialty coffees and mimosas. The program is $55 for zoo members and $65 for non-members. Those interested can register at:

People can learn about reptiles in the USS Antiquities cave and even meet some reptiles up-close during the Exploring the Cave program on Jan. 17; birds of prey during a session on Feb. 7, and enjoy an exclusive experience with the elephants on March 14.

The zoo, one of only 232 accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), is located at 1 Conservation Place, off South Wilbur Avenue, and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It is only closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Visit for more information.

Winter Events at Rosamond Gifford Zoo

While the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park is open all winter long, it has some special events. Here are the main ones.

Breakfast With Santa

Saturdays & Sundays

Dec. 8, 9, 15, 16, 22 & 23

9 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Celebrate the season at this popular holiday event. Elves will serve breakfast while young guests meet Santa. Bring a camera for photos with Saint Nick! Children can make a holiday craft and decorate cookies with Mrs. Claus. Ticket includes post-breakfast zoo admission.

$14 members | $18 non-members

Children 2 and under free

Reservations required; register online at or

Call 315-435-8511 x113

Holidays With The Animals

Sunday, Dec. 9, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Help celebrate the season with the animals as they receive enrichment “gifts” to engage them and enhance their well-being. Zoo-goers can watch the animals open their presents and play with their toys as they demonstrate natural behaviors.

Noon Year’s Eve

Sunday, Dec. 31,  10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Come ring in the “noon” year at the zoo with entertainment, a dance party and New Year’s celebration that keeps bed-time in mind — complete with countdown and a toast with sparkling juice at noon.

14th Annual Winter At The Zoo Photo Contest

Jan. 2 through 31

Each January, the zoo invites photographers of all abilities, aged 5 and up, to take part in a photo contest. Winning photos appear in the spring issue of our member publication “MyZoo Magazine,” on the zoo’s website and social media, and are displayed to the public for one year in the zoo’s gift shop windows.

Find details on this year’s contest at

Snow Leopard Days – Reduced Zoo Admission

Enjoy reduced admission to the zoo during January and February — visit for details.

Sweet Treats

Saturday, Feb. 16, 10 a.m.- 3 p.m.

Come see the animals get their Valentines in the form of heart-shaped enrichment items that encourage them to forage, play & engage in their natural behaviors.

Winter At The Zoo Photo Contest Awards Ceremony

Friday, Feb. 22, 3-4 p.m.

Winter Break Activities

Feb. 16-24

The zoo offers special keeper chats and animal greeters throughout each day of the Winter Break from school. Check the zoo website and Facebook for the schedule.