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What happens to zoo animals when a natural disaster approaches?

By Laura Goldman From Care2

With catastrophic hurricanes and other emergencies now occurring on a fairly regular basis, it’s more important than ever for zoos to protect their captive animals from harm. Unlike pets that can evacuate their homes with their owners, most zoo animals have to shelter in place during a disaster.

“The stress of moving the animals can be more dangerous than riding out the storm,” Zoo Miami wrote on its Facebook page after Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on South Florida in September 2017.

It’s good to know that all zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) must have a risk management plan in place for the animals. Every year these zoos must also perform at least four preparedness drills for emergencies like weather events, fires and other disasters. Zoos and aquariums must maintain functional fire protection and life support system equipment for animals.

The AZA’s Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Preparedness, Response and Recovery (ZAHP) Fusion Center, founded five years ago, serves to “bridge the gap in communication between the managed wildlife community and the emergency management sector,” according to its website. The USDA-funded center provides training and information “on prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery to the managed wildlife community while developing new partnerships with federal agencies, local and state emergency responders, and private sector groups concerned with animal welfare and emergency management.”

Zoo disaster plans vary by location, but in most cases they stockpile food and supplies for the animals as well as for the employees who remain at the zoo to care for them. The ride-out crews typically include select staff members, veterinarians and animal nutritionists.

“We were sleeping here at the zoo, on cots or on the floor,” Lee Ehmke, CEO of the Houston Zoo, told NPR after Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017. “We prepared food so everyone was fed … There was a lot of radio and internet communication to make sure the right diets were given to the animals.”


Where do zoo animals ride out storms and other disasters? They typically stay in their usual indoor holding areas, most of which are built to withstand these situations.

“Those night houses are made of poured concrete, welded metal, to withstand the strength of the animal itself,” Ron Magill, communications director for Zoo Miami, told NPR. “And fortunately, it’s also strong enough to withstand the strength of a major hurricane.” The zoo’s windowless restrooms are also made of concrete, so they provide temporary shelter for flamingoes.

Last month, zoos in southeastern states began making preparations three days before Hurricane Florence was predicted to hit the area. At the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, staff made sure there was an ample supply of food and medications for the animals and that emergency generators were ready, marketing director Ashley Mars told ABC News.

The grounds of the Virginia Zoo are designed to avoid flooding, but that tragically wasn’t the case in 2011 at Hersheypark’s ZooAmerica in Pennsylvania. Tropical Storm Lee caused a creek to overflow, flooding some of the exhibits. Zoo officials shot and killed two bison that were drowning, sparking outrage from people who said the zoo could have been better prepared for the storm. In a statement defending its actions, the zoo said, “Unfortunately, no one could anticipate a weather event that went from inches of rain to feet of flooding in a matter of a few short minutes.”

Fortunately, seven years later, all the Hersheypark’s ZooAmerica animals survived heavy rainstorms last summer by being temporarily relocated to indoor shelters.

To protect zoo animals during extreme blizzards, like the “bomb cyclone” early this year, employees usually bring cold-blooded animals indoors. They provide heating and blankets to animals like lions and orangutans that can remain in their exhibits. As added protection against injuries, Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has installed subterranean heating that melts the slippery ice on walkways leading to some of the animals’ indoor pens.

Does it bother the animals to be relocated during these emergencies? Bryan Amaral, senior curator of animal care sciences at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, doesn’t think so.

“A lot of the animals are pretty bright,” Amaral told “So while they won’t want to be inside on one particular day, on a day when it’s cold I think they absolutely understand where it’s warm and they’re happy to be there.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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