The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium stayed open despite frigid temperatures early this week, but zoo officials blamed a colder-than-average winter for a drop in attendance at the end of 2013 and start of the new year.
Patty Peters, vice president of community relations for the zoo, said the zoo was on pace for record-breaking attendance numbers in 2013 before the snow and cold arrived in early November.
"Once it got really, really cold, attendance really dropped off," Peters said.
She said the animatronic Dinosaur Island exhibit, which opened in late April and ran until late October, was "instrumental to our success" in drawing large numbers in 2013. The zoo did not open any major new animal exhibits last year, but Amur tiger cubs born in 2012 continued to be an attraction.
Peters said the zoo finished 2013 with 1.99 million visitors. It broke an attendance record in 2012 with slightly more than 2.02 million visitors, a record that she said would have fallen in 2013 if the winter were milder.
The low temperatures and snow struck as the zoo was launching its 25th anniversary celebration of the holiday Wildlights display, which wrapped up Sunday night, Jan. 5.
Just under 1,000 people attended the final night of the event as central Ohio residents prepared for some of the coldest temperatures in the past few decades. A record 32,271 people visited the zoo Dec. 28, which Peters credited to a break from rough weather conditions.
She said the zoo expected few visitors Monday, Jan. 6, as a pool of arctic air, known as a "polar vortex," hit the region. She said by 4 p.m. that day, five people had visited the zoo.
The below-zero temperatures did not change zoo operations much.
Peters said the zoo has guidelines for what animals need to move inside during certain weather conditions and temperatures. Any animals that are still out after the temperature drops below freezing, however, might stay out, even in the most frigid temperatures. "These kind of temperatures don't really change the way we do things," she said.
Lions and tigers, for example, have been indoors for months.
"We have a lot of African animals in our care, and when it gets to 55 degrees, they're pretty much done," Peters said.
There are some exceptions, she said, noting that the zoo's gorillas can enjoy playing in the snow if the sun is out.
Many of the zoo's North American animals, including some wolves and bears, stay outdoors, experiencing the temperatures they would in the wild. Peters said the animals' habitats include areas where they can take shelter from wind and precipitation.
Peters said the zoo, open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, does not close unless authorities deem travel dangerous.
"We generally wait and see if there's travel advisories," she said. "If it's a Level Two (snow emergency), for instance, we generally close down."