Imagine trying to evacuate a tiger, rhino or gorilla — during the throes of a major hurricane.
The panic from such a scenario “can kill these animals,” who could hatch a desperate plan to escape, causing them to run into things and overheat, said Zoo Miami spokesman Ron Magill.
Unlike household pets accustomed to taking trips, wild animals in a zoo are not used to being moved, he said.
That’s why the 330-acre Zoo Miami isn’t evacuating any of its 3,000 animals, a tactic also used by several other Florida zoos as Hurricane Irma approaches. The solution: Keep the animals in fortified buildings until the storm passes.
In Miami, most of the animals will stay in their normal “night houses,” sturdy structures located behind the serene and vegetative enclosures most zoo visitors see. Magill said they’re strong enough to withstand a hurricane because they’re designed to contain powerful tigers and gorillas.
The rest of Zoo Miami’s animals — smaller mammals, flamingos and birds — will be placed into kennels and moved within buildings.
During Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992, Zoo Miami placed a flock of flamingos in a men’s bathroom, a MacGuyver-like solution as the Category 5 storm tore through the Sunshine State. Magill said improvements to the zoo means that won’t happen this time around.
Up north at Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, the facility placed plastic and plywood on its night houses, where all of the facility’s 2,000 animals will stay during Irma.
Zoo spokeswoman JJ Vitale also argued against evacuating, saying it would be “so stressful for the animal.” The 90-acre facility, with everything from butterflies to elephants, set up video surveillance to keep an eye on the animals. Plus, a team will stay there throughout the storm.
Brevard Zoo will house larger animals in the night houses and smaller animals in its veterinary hospital. When Hurricane Matthew hit the zoo last year, a little red kangaroo was ejected from her mother’s pouch.
Lauren Hinson, the zoo’s collection manager, said deer and gray foxes become too stressed and thus will stay outdoors as Irma bears down.
“Most (animals) kind of hunker down, just kind of stay still, stay in one spot, kind of let it pass,” she said. “There are some that can get a little nervous and flighty. But for the most part, they deal with it kind of how they would in the wild.”
If the storm gets bad enough in Jacksonville, the zoo could transfer animals to another facility. At Zoo Miami, Magill said evacuation would be considered only if storm surge of flooding hit the facility.
Despite the doomsday-like forecast for South Florida, Magill says his senses tell him Zoo Miami will be spared. Native birds and squirrels — zoo “freeloaders,” Magill said — have evacuated before big storms in the past, a natural sign of nasty weather. The native animals remained at Zoo Miami on Saturday.
“I want to believe that that is sort of nature’s way of telling the brunt of this storm is not going to hit us,” he said.