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Protecting zoo animals from a natural disaster can be a tricky situation.

Talia Avakian
Updated September 08, 2017

A natural disaster like a hurricane can become a tricky situation when you’re trying to find safe spaces for wild animals.

As the category five Hurricane Irma continues to make its way into Florida, zoos across the state are preparing, but not in the way you might expect.

It might seem dangerous to have animals remain in enclosed spaces and tanks to ride out the disaster, but zoo officials say that is the best option. 

Spaces like Zoo Miami will be riding out the hurricane with their critters and mammals. The zoo explained in a Facebook post that they don’t evacuate their animals because hurricanes can change direction at the last minute and put you in a more dangerous location, and moving the animals can cause them a great deal of stress.

Ron Magill, the zoo's communications director, told NPR that in some cases, the stress of evacuating can be so strong on an animal, it can actually lead to death.

“That’s probably the No. 1 question I get asked: ‘Oh my God, when are you going to evacuate animals?’ We are never going to evacuate animals,” he said.

The zoo also said they would be stocking up on additional food and water for the animals, keeping those species that can be dangerous in “secure night houses” made of poured concrete and welded metal, similar to what the zoo did during Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago.

Zoo Miami is just one of several zoos in Florida that have announced they will be staying put. The Palm Beach Zoo also announced on Facebook that they will be moving the animals to hurricane shelter areas within the zoo.

The Facebook post also mentioned that it's safer for the animals that experience higher levels of stress to stay in their habitats and seek shelter during the storm, with hurricane shutters and hurricane-proof glass set up throughout the space.

Several facilities did the same during Hurricane Harvey, with zoos like the San Antonio Zoo even stepping up to deliver supplies to zoos and aquariums in Houston and Victoria that were caught in the hurricane. 

According to NPR, all members that fall under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which includes more than 230 animal care facilities throughout the world, have an annual disaster preparedness drill they practice exactly for these types of circumstances.

While there are standard procedures all the zoos follow, each zoo comes up with its own specific plan, taking into account its own space and situation. 

The plan typically includes having staff members get rid of debris from the park and remove all signage before preparing generators and gas tanks and stocking up on additional food and supplies for the animals, according to NPR.

Meanwhile, staff members will often ride out the storms and hurricanes with the animals. Some have ended up losing their own homes while helping care for the species.

Locations like the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservancy have closed up their doors in preparation for the hurricane, while the Lion Country Safari will have staff on-site and a command station set up, with animals kept in their enclosures during the storm.

Similarly, it can be best for aquariums to try and ride out storms since water tanks can be heavy to move and fish can get tricky to transport, considering changing the water that they are already in can affect their respiration, Rich Toth of the Audubon Nature Institute told NPR.

In areas like the Loggerhead Marine Life Center, which will close over the weekend, officials were able to transport some 10 turtles and 40 hatchlings to a safer shelter at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, though this is the first time the marine center has taken on an operation like this, representatives told the Palm Beach Post.

Several other Florida zoos will be preparing to ride out the storm, including Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, which will have its larger animals stay in night houses, while smaller animals will be moved to the zoo's veterinary hospital, according to Florida Today

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