How zoos protect—and evacuate—animals during wildfires

Not all animals can be safely evacuated. With fires in America's West becoming increasingly common, zoos must prepare for disaster.

Early on Friday morning, a brush fire broke out near the Los Angeles Zoo. It was November 9, and Southern California’s fire crews were already battling one record-breaking blaze. Northeast of Los Angeles, the Woolsey Fire had jumped the 101 Freeway earlier that morning and was burning south. Just seven hours later, it would roar through Malibu to the beach, leaving a swath of charred ruins.

Situated in the northeast side of the city’s 1,703-acre Griffith Park, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is home to more than 1,400 mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles—many of them endangered species. The zoo’s lush green property is backed by hills covered in oily chaparral shrubs, parched by the long dry season, and the ubiquitous invasive grasses which, by summer’s end, had dehydrated to crisp yellow patches of straw—the source of California’s famous “golden hills.”

As global warming increases the frequency of fires, floods, and hurricanes, zoos across the country are ramping up their plans to protect their animals from catastrophe. Julie Barnes, the director of animal care and health at the Santa Barbara Zoo says that emergency and disaster preparedness has been “a very hot topic” in last five years. “Earthquake is always a risk, so that’s been talked about forever,” she says. “But with climate change, we are seeing these extreme weather events, and we’re feeling the effects of them.”

A wildlife in Griffith Park, near the Los Angeles Zoo, began early in the morning on November 9. Because of the terrain, fire engines couldn't reach the blaze.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBYN BECK, AFP/GETTY

DJ Shubert, a biologist with the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, agrees. “Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina really started the discussion about animals and natural disasters” and the need for contingency plans, he says. “It was about pets, but also zoo animals and other animals in captivity.”

In California, the trend toward catastrophic, year-round wildfires has put planning for fire emergencies at the forefront.

Plans and Drills

By 7:10 a.m., the Los Angeles Fire Department was outside the zoo. Crews couldn’t see the fire itself, but the smoke billowing into the sky suggested it was just a few hills away from the northern end of the zoo’s property and inaccessible to fire engines. Firefighters hiked up the steep grade on foot.

At 7:16 a.m., staff at the zoo initiated emergency procedures.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires its accredited members (of which the Los Angeles Zoo is one) to have a written procedure for fire as well as three other categories of emergency: injury of visitors or staff, an animal escape, and environmental emergencies specific to the zoo’s region, such as earthquakes.

Staff at accredited zoos must run through at least one live-action emergency drill—a pre-planned simulation—each year for each category of emergency.

Staff at the Los Angeles Zoo move birds into an indoor classroom to protect their sensitive lungs from the smoke of the wildfire nearby.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBYN BECK, AFP/GETTY

Citing time constraints, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Zoo on Wednesday declined to discuss the zoo’s emergency response procedures but said in an email that the zoo’s contingency plans are reviewed annually and “updated as necessary.”

In a prepared statement, communications director April Spurlock wrote that “staff takes precautionary measures such as brush clearance, utilising sprinkler systems throughout the zoo, and strategically placing fire extinguishers throughout the property, which staff has been trained to use.” Drills run regularly “enable staff to be ready to act at a moment’s notice to protect the animals, employees, and patrons.”

Prioritising

Because fire is such a significant risk in Southern California, the Santa Barbara Zoo has different levels of plans for responding, depending on how a fire is progressing and the circumstances, Barnes says.

When the 2017 record-breaking Thomas fire broke out in Ventura, south of Santa Barbara, staff started preparing to evacuate. They got out the transport crates they had stored on site and put them out by the animal exhibits and their holding areas.

Firefighters battle the Woolsey Fire as it burns through Malibu, California.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIC THAYER, REUTERS

The zoo has a list of priority animals—those that are highly endangered, genetically very valuable for breeding programs, or are the type of “ambassador animals” that bring in visitors. Those are the animals they attend to first in an emergency.

The California condors were the first animals to evacuate, several days before the fire got close. “They are highly valuable from a conservation perspective, and we wanted to make sure those birds were absolutely safe,” says Barnes. The condors and several large vulture species were sent to the L.A. Zoo. Both zoos are involved in a recovery program that’s brought the California condor back from the brink of extinction.

Evacuate or Shelter in Place?

Besides the priority of the animal, Barnes says, staff must consider how practical it is to transport the animals and whether they can cope with the stress of being crated and moved.

Condors are easily moveable. Giraffe and elephants, not so much. They’re not trained to go into crates, like birds or small mammals, and moving such big animals is a logistical nightmare, particularly in a hurry. “The crates and trailers you’d need are huge,” Barnes says. Instead, the plan is to keep the animals at the zoo and have staff defend them there.

And what if the fire arrives before there’s time to evacuate any animals at all? “We would start to consolidate them into areas we could defend from the fire,” Barnes says. “We would move them to our safest buildings—concrete buildings, cinder block buildings, and the spaces where we could more easily defend them from the fire.”

This king vulture is one of the LA Zoo's more than 1,400 animals that was potentially at risk from the fire in Griffith Park.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK RALSTON, AFP/GETTY

As the Thomas fire moved closer, mandatory human evacuations and road closures made it difficult for staff to get to work. The air grew smokier. A baby anteater that needed bottle-feeding and round-the-clock care was sent to the Fresno Zoo. One night, the fire progressed 21 kilometres. Staff evacuated some reindeer they had on loan. They took the farmyard animals to the barn stalls at the Santa Barbara showgrounds. They put small animals and birds into transport crates, keeping them in the building with the best ventilation system until they might need to load them onto truck beds for safekeeping at other zoos. They put crates in holding areas and had plans in place for each one; dangerous animals would be sent to the San Diego Zoo.

A crew stayed the night at the zoo to be ready to go if the situation got worse. Direct contact with the flames wouldn’t be the only danger they’d have to fend off. All animals, humans included, are susceptible to harm and death from smoke inhalation, says Barnes. Intense heat can damage respiratory systems, too. And even if animals are protected from fire and smoke, there’s the danger of getting burned by the hot surface of a crate or enclosure. (Read about what it's like to fight deadly wildfires).

"Anything Goes"

According to its website, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums “has a verifiable track record of enforcing its standards,” and its member institutions are “required to repeat the entire accreditation process every five years.” (The association’s communications office did not respond by Thursday afternoon to phone and email requests for comment.)

However, not all zoos are accredited by the AZA. And for those that are not, there is little oversight of emergency response plans.

In December 2012, the USDA amended the Animal Welfare Act regulations to require zoos (as well as other organisations that exhibit animals) to conduct “contingency planning” and “training of personnel.”

DJ Shubert, the wildlife biologist, believes the rule is grossly inadequate. He points out that facilities aren’t required to submit their plans for review, nor is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service required to evaluate how well the plans worked after a disaster. The reality, he says, is that “anything goes.”

“Anteater Therapy”

By 7:53 a.m. last Friday, Los Angeles fire crews had located the fire in Griffith Park and estimated it to be two or three acres. Luckily, the ferocious Santa Ana winds fueling fires elsewhere in Southern California were not present here. Still, engines weren’t able to reach the fire because of the terrain. (Read more: Why California's wildfires are so hard to fight).

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Zoo staff relocated their trained birds and some small primates to the parking lot, which was more sheltered from the smoke, and they hosed down hillsides to keep flying embers from igniting.

By 9:29 a.m., the fire had grown to 12 hectares. More than 125 firefighters worked to get it under control, and water-dropping aircraft were circling above. At 10:24, crews had stopped the fire’s advance, and by 2 p.m., it was 60 percent contained. The immediate danger was over, but crews and three engines kept vigil throughout the night, watching for flare-ups.

In Santa Barbara last year, the Thomas fire was finally halted two or three miles from the zoo. The staff stayed on high alert until they were sure the containment lines would hold. In the end, they’d only had to evacuate a few animals, but they’d been ready for much worse.

The animals coped with the whole situation quite well, says Barnes. But the fire (and the deadly mudslides that followed) took a real toll on the staff. The contingency plans hadn’t considered the fatigue of constantly being evacuated from their homes, the difficulty of getting to work in a disaster zone, working in poor air quality, the death and destruction in their communities.

On New Year’s Day, Nancy the baby anteater returned. Born a twin to a species of mother that can only raise one baby, Nancy had been hand-reared and was very friendly and cuddly, says Barnes. “People who were feeling depressed would want to come in and give her cuddles. So we joked that she was providing anteater therapy to those who needed it.”

Meanwhile, Barnes and the other animal care staff, and the safety and security staff, got to work refining their fire emergency procedures based on the lessons they’d learned from Thomas. They’ll be better practised for when—not if—another fire breaks out.

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