January 9, 2014 10:17:49 AM
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Sure, it's mind-bogglingly cold in the Northern Hemisphere. But the sweltering weather on the opposite end of the Earth has man and beast alike dreaming of ice.
Brazil is sizzling, and with the heat index sometimes soaring above 120 F, keepers at the Rio de Janeiro zoo are giving the animals ice pops to beat the heat.
The homemade treats come in various flavors. For the big cats, there are bloody, 66-pound blocks of ice and raw meat. There are bucket-sized cornucopias of iced fruit for Ze Comeia, a brown bear rescued from a circus, and a supply of chilled bananas for Karla the elephant.
The simians' treats, strawberry or mango-flavored frozen yogurt pops on sticks, looked the most appealing to the crowds of human visitors who stood Wednesday in the blazing sun and 94-degree weather to gape at the apes.
"When I saw them eating them their ice creams, I asked my parents to get me one, too," said Damaris Pereira Dias, 11, as she licked a rapidly melting treat in Brazil's adored green corn flavor. "It made me really hungry to watch them."
The apes couldn't get enough. Paulinho the chimpanzee reached long, leathery fingers through the bars to snatch a strawberry-flavored treat from zookeeper Karla Cunha's hand, then gobbled it down. He then delicately handed the stick back through the bars -- a trick he's learned wins another ice pop.
The felines were less polite. Simba the 14-year-old lion and Neto, a 10-year-old Siberian tiger, put sandpaper tongues and pointy canines to work on giant bloodsicles, using oversized paws to hold the slick blocks of iced meat in place. Simba growled as a photographer got too close, and the crowd of cellphone photo-snapping visitors recoiled.
Ze Comeia the bear used his back paws to grasp a giant tutti-frutti ice block that he licked while bobbing on his back in a wading pool. While one zookeeper sprayed Koala the 45-year-old female elephant with a garden hose, another placed banana after banana into her mouth.
"This is their favorite time of day," said Cunha, the zoo's dietitian. "In addition to cooling the animals down on days like this where the heat is downright unbearable, it's also fun and keeps them active."
With just weak water misters and wading pools to provide the animals with relief, icy treats are added to the zoo's menu when temperatures hit the mid-80s, Cunha said.
Zookeepers have been handing out nearly 100 of the frozen snacks daily during the heat wave that has seen temperatures soar above the mid-90s for about 10 straight days. The apes alone consume around 70 of the snacks per day, with the fruit and yogurt-blends in highest demand.
"Frozen yogurt is very popular this year," said Cunha. "They just go crazy for it."
Even amid the nation's heat wave, Brazilian media has focused on the extreme cold in the north.
The Folha de S.Paulo newspaper reported Wednesday on how sun-worshipping Brazilians were surviving the U.S. freeze, including 27-year-old Renato Volpi, who used a hair dryer to thaw frozen water pipes in Chicago. Folha's New York-based columnist Marcos Goncalves described the clothes he was wearing for the cold, including the exotic item of long underwear. "I've never experienced temperatures so low," Goncalves wrote.
The heat wave extended to neighboring Argentina, where hundreds of dead fish floated in a lake in the capital of Buenos Aires. Catfish and shad were the most affected. Alejandro Perez, director of the 3 de Febrero Park where the dead fish were found floating, said the high temperatures had stolen oxygen from the water life.
Temperatures that have risen to more than 90 F in the Southern Hemisphere summer have also sparked street protests in Argentina over electricity outages.
Meteorologist Fabio Rocha of Brazil's federal weather service said the heat wave was not a mirror opposite and in no way related to the polar vortex punishing the U.S. and other northern nations.
"There has been a lack of cloud cover, especially in the southeastern parts of Brazil, exposing the area to more of the sun's rays and driving up maximum temperatures," Rocha said. "It's going to remain like this, probably until the weekend when there may be some rains."
Ze Comeia and the other zoo animals, as well as their human fans, would certainly welcome some rain.
"I'm sweating so much out here, and I don't even have fur," zoo visitor Karla Nunes, a 55-year-old retiree said, as she mopped her bow. "Imagine them, poor things!"