When smoke from California’s wildfires was smothering the Bay Area last month, the Oakland Zoo closed to the public. The staff worked in shifts, many of them wearing N95 face masks, monitoring how animals dealt with the smoke from the fires more than a hundred miles away.
Southern California was also dealing with wildfires and heavy smoke. In both regions, zoos had to make some tough decisions. Since Oakland has generally pleasant weather, and the zoo only houses animals that can thrive in California’s climate, it lacks large indoor holding areas. Zoo coordinators had to choose between exposing animals to the smoke or restricting their ability to roam, both of which can inflict stress. The Los Angeles Zoo decided to evacuate its birds, along with some small primates, away from the smoke from a brush fire that ignited at Griffith Park, just a little more than a mile away.
As climate change escalates the intensity and frequency of natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, zoos are having to find new ways to keep their animals safe. This means stocking up on emergency provisions for a hundred or more species, each with their own special medical, dietary, and habitat needs. It also means knowing, at a moment’s notice, which species need to move if keeping them outdoors becomes unsafe. Collecting such information requires years of planning. But zoos only began doing the work fairly recently. Yvonne Nadler, who worked as a veterinary epidemiologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago during the avian influenza outbreak in 2007, says that at that time, very few zoo workers had the needed expertise—a gap that put both people and animals in danger. “There’s no just-in-time training to know how to evacuate a lion,” she says.
Nadler is now the program manager for the ZAHP Fusion Center, a USDA-backed emergency-preparedness program for zoos and aquariums. Helping professional animal handlers prepare for catastrophe has become a growing priority for the center. It worked with the Oakland Zoo, for example, on its preparations for wildfires and other emergencies. The zoo’s employees now conduct regular fire drills and hire goats to eat dry brush from the hills around the zoo. “Through this preparedness, we have been able to quickly anticipate and respond to facility needs” during wildfires, says Darren Minier, assistant director at the Oakland Zoo.
Some facilities, like the Houston Zoo, have enough experience with severe storms to have well-honed emergency plans. During owing to climate change and other environmental problems, protecting zoo animals becomes even more important. Nadler anticipates that her work will become more urgent as climate-related calamities increase over the next several years. “As these natural disasters seem to be increasing with great regularity, more facilities are going to begin to understand the importance of planning,” she says.
Of course, humans are also grappling with the need to prep for disaster. And in a catastrophe’s aftermath, zoos can help a community heal. Jackie Wallace, a spokesperson for the Houston Zoo, says it hosted 27,000 people in the first four days it was open after Hurricane Harvey. “We became a respite for people to get out of their houses,” she says. With Bay Area air once again clear, the Oakland Zoo turned its attention to its annual holiday celebrations, stringing lights in the shape of animals for its annual ZooLights festival. Amidst the preparations, however, says zoo spokesperson Erin Harrison, staffers also made time to deliver cleaning and pet supplies to the families who lost their homes during the fires in Paradise.