No foolproof zoo disaster plan

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As fire raged in Griffith Park, coming as close as half a mile to the southern side of the Los Angeles Zoo, staffers did what their emergency plan instructed them to do: They focused on securing the animals in exhibits near that edge of the facility.

Zookeepers began shepherding four Speke’s gazelles, a diminutive type of antelope, into their off-exhibit barn. But one of the gazelles apparently didn’t get the memo on fire procedures. He balked. So as the park burned, keepers let him be.

When the blaze seemed to turn away from the zoo, the keepers changed course and let some of the other gazelles out of the barn to provide company for the loner. Said John Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Zoo: “He was getting worked up.”


In dealing with the array of California natural disasters -- wildfires, earthquakes, even tsunamis -- the state’s zoos face a particularly daunting challenge: protecting a menagerie of exotic, and sometimes dangerous, animals that can’t be scooped up in kennels like dogs and cats and whisked out to the car.

“Basically we secure the animals in the night houses and then hunker down,” said Joel Parrott, a veterinarian and the director of the Oakland Zoo. Or, like the skittish gazelle, some animals are allowed to remain in their outdoor areas in the interest of keeping them calm.

But the bottom line is this: In a conflagration, most animals will neither be evacuated nor let go and allowed to run wild. Their fates will be tied to the weather, firefighters and concrete structures that don’t easily burn.

Zoos create elaborate emergency plans and run drills -- they must do both to maintain accreditation -- to protect the animals. But zoo directors are loath to speculate about worst-case scenarios.

“If you can’t move the animal, there’s not much you can do, and you may lose an animal,” said David Towne, director emeritus of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and one of the few zoo professionals who would acknowledge that an animal could die if a fire got out of control.

“If you had an Armageddon-type fire, we’re going to protect the lives of our staff,” said Lewis when asked about the possibility of animal casualties. “The reality is there, but the fact is it hasn’t happened here.”


In general, the L.A. Zoo’s fire plan delineates a chain of command among the staff and an evacuation procedure for the public. It instructs various keepers to monitor the animals “as long as it is safe to do so,” ensure that water hoses are connected and used to wet down areas near the fire unless fire authorities say otherwise and advises staff to secure animals sensitive to noise. “Along with the threat of a fire, one of the biggest problems for many of the animals is the disturbance caused by helicopters flying directly over or near their enclosures,” the plan states.

No zoo official interviewed for this article could remember a wildfire that had destroyed an animal. “Most of these zoos have pretty fire-resistant facilities,” said Towne.

In zoos nationwide, most off-exhibit structures for animals are concrete and plenty of water hoses are available if enclosures need to be wetted down. Plus, grazing animals are excellent do-it-yourself brush clearers.

Most of the San Diego Wild Animal Park’s inhabitants graze down their own exhibits, the smallest of which measures 100 acres, according to Christina Simmons, public relations manager for the park and the San Diego Zoo.

In 1993 and 2003, wildfires threatened the park. “In 1993, the fire came right up to our fence line,” Simmons said. Officials caught the park’s condors and moved them away from the fire, but large animals did not have to be evacuated. In the 2003 fire, the park moved some birds and baby animals to safer quarters but left the large animals in their expansive habitats where they could attempt to move away from smoke if necessary. “The space itself provides protection,” Simmons said.

Simmons declined to make the zoo and wild animal park’s emergency plans available. Both facilities are operated by the Zoological Society of San Diego, a private, nonprofit corporation.

The zoo’s famous pandas -- on loan from China -- are not entitled by the agreement with the Chinese to any special handling in the event of a disastrous fire, according to Simmons. The Chinese, however, require U.S. zoos to insure their pandas, according to Towne, who heads the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation, a U.S.-based organization that coordinates the efforts of zoos in this country to acquire pandas and aids in the negotiations.

The L.A. Zoo’s Lewis said that over the last decade and a half, zoos have concentrated on figuring out what will work and what won’t.

“We learned you can’t grab up all the animals and put them in a box. So we started making more realistic plans,” he said.

“It can take you hours to get a rhinoceros into a transport cage and onto a truck,” said Bob Jenkins, director of animal care and conservation at the San Francisco Zoo. “With that kind of pressure, mistakes are going to be made. It’s far better to secure these animals in their quarters that can hold them. Remember, a building that can hold a rhino can withstand a lot of damage.”

But Lewis added that under some circumstances, some animals might be evacuated. “If there are small, easily tractable animals that can be moved, we will try to move them.”

The L.A. Zoo’s current emergency plan specifies how various animals should be kept in their exhibits or secured in their barns. A few should be moved -- if possible.

“Bag up the rarest non-venomous reptiles,” the plan instructs. “Venomous reptiles should only be worked with if there is time....”

The plan suggests securing the meerkats in their off-exhibit area, but if they can’t be coaxed out of their burrows, the surrounding area should be wetted down. “Avoid flooding burrows,” the plan says.

The endangered condors -- which are at the zoo to breed, never put on exhibit -- merit two pages of meticulous instructions on how they should be removed and which of them should go first: “Condors shall be captured and evacuated according to the order of importance of each bird,” the plan states. Nesting chicks are to be carted in “portable brooders or air crates”; “eggs shall be placed in portable incubators.”

Battalion Chief Craig Fry of the L.A. Fire Department, who ran the Griffith Park fire command center, said, “One of my first priorities was to put an engine company by the condor breeding facility....If we destroyed all the condors, that would be environmentally bad.”

Officials at the San Francisco Zoo, in an urban park adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, place a color-coded emergency guidance document in every office and barn. The zoo rates earthquakes and their potential for tsunamis a greater threat than fires. And earthquakes are the type of disaster in which animal evacuation becomes a real possibility.

“What we really prepare for is the aftermath,” said Parrott of the Oakland Zoo -- which sits atop the Hayward fault line. “We have big water tanks that mount onto the back of pickup trucks. We prepare for a total three-day cutoff of power and water.... We’re assuming that after three days, some roadways will be open to begin moving animals out.”

Fry said he doubted the L.A. Zoo would actually go up in flames.

“I would say the odds are about 99.9% against it, because we would be able to get in right away and attack that fire with hose lines,” he said. “Their structures are not combustible.”

He also noted that the zoo is bordered on three sides by areas that don’t burn much: a golf course, a big parking lot (“a huge safe area”) and a road.

“They have built in safeguards,” Fry said. “I feel real comfortable.”