Animals, keepers stay at L.A. Zoo

Times Staff Writer

The call came in to the Los Angeles Zoo a little before 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Fire officials suggested they send visitors home. “That’s when we started kicking the plan into gear,” said zoo Director John Lewis.

But forget any Noah’s Ark-like fantasies about animals being led placidly out of the zoo grounds to a giant rescue van.

The human visitors were evacuated. But the animals stayed put. Keepers escorted the inhabitants of the zoo into their off-exhibit, night quarters just a little earlier than usual.


“With 1,200 animals, it’s simply impossible to safely evacuate them,” Lewis said. “Even if you had all the time in the world, it’s hard to fathom. Our plan is protecting them where they are.”

Animals are often difficult to move. “Even for the hoofstock, it’s safer to protect them there,” he said. “The act of catching them is potentially dangerous to them. They could injure themselves, they could be severely distressed, the staff could be injured.”

The zoo has city public safety officers on duty 24 hours a day. They were the first ones to get the alert of the fire, which early in the afternoon was possibly as close as a mile south of the zoo, Lewis estimated.

The first priority was to secure the large, dangerous animals. “Lions, tigers, bears, chimpanzees -- those are the primary ones,” he said. The animals on the south side of the zoo -- Speke’s gazelles, other hoofed animals -- closest to the fire were ushered into their barns quickly.

“The whole lockdown went pretty easy,” Lewis said. “That’s part of our management. These animals are familiar with their quarters.”

Nonessential zoo personnel was sent home but administrators, keepers, curators, veterinarians and Lewis stayed.


If the fire had gotten closer, barns and areas around the animals would have been wetted down.

There are exceptions to the stay-put rule. But “there’s no list,” Lewis said. “Different curators are responsible for determining which ones can be moved safely.”

But if the fire had come very close, the zoo might have evacuated -- to the parking lot -- the California condors that live on higher ground near the zoo’s perimeter. The condors, an endangered species, are in the zoo as part of a breeding program. The decision would not be taken lightly, however, Lewis said.

Condors never interact directly with their keepers so that they will continue to have a healthy fear of humans when released into the wild.

“The decision to go in and remove them physically is something we would do at the very last minute,” Lewis said. It was never an issue Tuesday. “They’re way over on the other side from the fire.”

The zoo does brush clearance seasonally, Lewis said, and “on the east side the parking lot is the buffer and on the south side is the golf course. And on the west side we have a road that acts as a fairly good buffer.”