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Zoo Animals

Protecting Animals During Hurricanes: How Zoos and Aquariums May Handle Irma

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More than 1 million Floridians are being told to evacuate their homes ahead of Hurricane Irma’s arrival, but what about those who can’t leave?

The nation’s zoos have to be prepared for every kind of natural disaster, so the animals under their care stay safe. This can result in some creative to solutions.

According to NPR, Zoo Miami’s flamingos rode out 1992’s Hurricane Andrew and 1998’s Hurricane George in one of the zoo’s bathrooms, flocking together on hay added to the floor.

Now, the zoos of Florida are preparing their furry and feathered residents for a massive storm once more, following their current disaster preparedness protocols, which zoos belonging to the The Association of Zoos and Aquariums are required to run through at least once a year.

The plans include preventive measures similar to those many humans take with their homes. Loose debris, signs, plants and tarps are taken down from around the zoo; staff members stock up on supplies for all of the animals and make their meals in advance; and generators are prepared in case of a power outage. Along with all of these resources, each zoo often has a set of staff members assigned to stay on site through the natural disaster to ensure any emergencies can be handled immediately, and that all the animals are fed correctly and on schedule.

Evacuation is rarely an option, since moving animals in high-stress situations is often more dangerous than staying put, especially when dealing with an unpredictable storm.

“That’s probably the No. 1 question I get asked: ‘Oh my God, when are you going to evacuate animals?’ We are never going to evacuate animals,” Zoo Miami’s communications director Ron Magill told NPR.

He added, “Night houses are made of poured concrete, welded metal, to withstand the strength of the animal itself. And fortunately, it’s also strong enough to withstand the strength of a major hurricane.”

This means that large animals will bunker down in their indoor enclosures, whiles smaller residents will be moved to the safety of individual kennels in zoo buildings.

Since a zoo’s disaster preparedness plan is always evolving, facilities often make changes based on past experiences. Since Hurricane Andrew blew away its walk-in freezers and fridges, Zoo Miami rented freezer and refrigerator trucks ahead of Hurricane Irma to keep food fresh. Close to 100 of the zoo’s birds died in Andrew, so Zoo Miami has strengthened the hurricane safety measures in all of its aviaries.

Once the storm blows over, other zoos are often quick to help those affected by a disaster, sending in resources and taking in animals that need to be temporarily housed while exhibits are repaired.

“For a lot of people — and I’m speaking for myself in Andrew — the zoo became almost a haven for us,” Magill said. “We became a better zoo. And as bad as this storm looks, I know we’ll be able to make it through this also.”