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Monday, September 14, 2015

When the Worst Happens...

"Be prepared."

- Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Boy Scouting

For the time being, at least, PAWS - the Performing Animal Welfare Sanctuary - appears to be spared.  The fires that are ravaging northern California have shifted direction away from the sanctuary, home to elephants, tigers, bears, and other exotic animals.  All of that can change with the wind, however.   They're very lucky.  It's easy to imagine this story having a much darker ending.

An example of how much worse it could have been is in western Asia, where a different facility faced a very different natural disaster.  The Tbilisi Zoo, in Georgia's capital, was flooded earlier this year.  Many animals drowned, while others used the rising waters to escape from their enclosures.  Several employees were drowned while trying to save their zoo and the animals that they cared for.  

If flood and fire, earthquake and hurricane weren't enough to terrify any zookeeper, there are also threats from other sources.  Animals can escape, or visitors could fall into exhibits, but those risks have been there for as long as there have been zoos.  Much more recently, zoos have had to worry about human-caused disasters - active shooters, bomb threats, or acts of terrorism.

It's impossible to predict every potential disaster that could befall a zoo, but proper planning and training is essential to help a zoo or aquarium prepare as best as it can.   In many cases, the natural disasters that a facility might face are at least somewhat predictable.  Zoos on the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast of the US have to worry about hurricanes in the fall; those further north have to deal with inclement weather every winter.  California has earthquakes, the midwest has tornados, and everyone near water has to worry about flooding.  There are ways of planning and preparing.  Have generators handy in case storms knock out power.  Secure housing to move animals into during severe weather.  Make sure equipment - fire extinguishers, flashlights, generators, fence-repair kits - are all in good order.  A phone tree in case of an emergency in order to improve communication and get people reacting quickly.

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas lost almost its entire fish collection in 2005 due to power loss in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  It was a tragic loss, but learning from it helped other aquariums prepare for future hurricanes.

An emergency response goes beyond the zoo staff, however.  Depending on the emergency, the team may involve police, firefighters, paramedics, or other government or private partners.  It's wise to involve these players in your training and preparation for disasters.  You don't want to be meeting them for the first time when the brown stuff hits the fan.

Facilities wishing to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are required to train and drill on a variety of scenarios - animal escapes, fires, severe weather.   I know our facility does, though having been in some actual emergencies (never super-severe ones, thankfully), I'll admit it's a poor substitute.  No one remembers the fancy radio codes or what the emergency-use-only job titles are.  People just run and do what needs to be done.  Practice does help, however, especially in instilling the confidence that you're prepared for a disaster.

In recent years, I've become addicted to the slew of superhero movies that have been coming out every year, most of which seem to result in at least one city (often New York) being reduced to a smoldering parking lot.  After watching Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers, I remember asking my girlfriend, "What happens to the poor zoo amid all this?"  Her reply?  "I hope they don't have a zoo in this version of New York.  I mean, after the second time the city gets demolished, it just seems silly to rebuild it." 

She's right of course.  On thing we never did run a drill on was an alien invasion (or a zombie apocalypse, for that matter)... but it's probably only a matter of time before someone decides we need one.

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