Managing potential disasters at the zoo with preparedness training, planning and forethought at calmer times and mock emergency drills can go a long way in saving lives.
Here are three disaster scenarios for zoo or aquarium managers: One, a wildfire lunges towards your facility, threatening your staff and hundreds of zoo animals. Two, hurricane floodwaters pour into your basement, where thousands of exotic fish and marine mammals live in giant tanks. Three, local poultry farmers report avian influenza (bird flu) in their chickens, a primary source of protein for your big cats.
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These are among the many potential disasters the managers of zoos and aquariums ponder in their emergency preparedness drills and plans. But these stories are not just worst-case scenarios: The events described above actually happened, and the aftermath - often heroic, and sometimes tragic - depended in large part on the institutions' preparedness training, planning and forethought in calmer times.
When bad weather strikes or illness invades, zoos and aquariums are among the most vulnerable facilities affected, said University of Illinois veterinarian Yvette Johnson-Walker, a clinical epidemiologist who contributes to emergency response training efforts at animal exhibitor institutions. She is a clinical instructor in the department of veterinary clinical medicine at Illinois, and lead author of a new paper on emergency preparedness at zoos and aquariums in the journal Homeland Security & Emergency Management.
Some animals are likely to suffer if the electricity goes out for long, she said. Others are large, skittish and dangerous under normal conditions.
Training caretakers and keepers to minimize their own risks while attending to their animals in an emergency is a challenge, but leads to the best outcomes, she said.
In 2012, Johnson-Walker joined forces with Yvonne Nadler, a project manager with the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Preparedness Response and Recovery Center, to bring vital emergency training to accredited animal exhibitor institutions in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri. This effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and supported by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, has since expanded, providing training to staff from zoos and aquariums in 23 states.