Within the last week, the zoo community has had to cope with two tragic fires at two different facilities. Bright's Zoo, a privately owned zoo in Tennessee, had a barn catch on fire, costing the zoo the lives of several birds. Then, the London Zoo suffered a fire that claimed the life of an aardvark; four meerkats are also presumed to have perished in the blaze. Each fire was tragic, a zookeeper's nightmare. Still, as terrible as each was, they could have been even worse.
Some members of our community have been muttering darkly on social media, hinting that these fires are not accidental, or that there is an international conspiracy of terrorists seeking to bring down zoos. Never say impossible, but I kind of doubt it.
Even without imagining boogeyman, fires in winter are a very real - and very terrifying - threat. Heat lamps and heaters can be strung haphazardly, sometimes in old buildings where the wiring is poor and dust and cobwebs, both flammable, festoon the corners. Smaller, tropical animals are inside, sometimes in high concentrations, so a single burning building can claim many lives. It's not even the fire that you really have to worry about - it's the smoke. For evidence, look no further than the fire at the Philadelphia Zoo several years ago, which killed every single gorilla, orangutan, and other occupant of their primate house.
I've never had to deal with a major fire at a zoo where I've worked, but I have put out a few minor ones, one of which required us to race into the smoke-filled building and carry out animals, some in cages, most by hand, into the fresh air. I've also had to visit the charred wreckage of a friend's home, listening to her describe, numbly, the pets that had been inside and couldn't be saved. It was horrible.
I'm so sorry for the losses that these zoos have suffered. I hope that the keepers afflicted by these tragedies can find some peace over the holidays.