The Wild Side of Disaster: Planning to Protect Captive Wildlife Facilities
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2009
Lisa B. Done, DVM, MPVM
Oxnard, CA, USA


With natural disasters occurring throughout the country, it is important for captive wildlife facilities to effectively plan on how to handle these disasters. This emergency preparedness should be for the worst category of the event (i.e., category 5 hurricane). Regardless of the type of disaster, there are basic general considerations to take into consideration for this preparedness. These include developing: 1) an emergency preparedness handbook, 2) auxiliary volunteer support teams, 3) zoo visitor evacuation plans, 4) list of priority for endangered species, 4) adequate backup for electricity, ventilation, lighting and heating, and 5) supplies.

General Considerations

The emergency preparedness handbook defines the chain of command, communication pathways and alternatives. It is clearly written and concise so that employees know their role. The auxiliary volunteer support teams are under the direction of the emergency preparedness team and can function as spotters and observers of the public, assessors of the animal inventory and assistants for any other jobs. Zoo evacuation plans need to be thorough, planned and orderly. These evacuation plans should be made for both pre and post disaster. Concerning the priority of endangered species, these animals will need separate contingency plans and specialized teams to deal with such species. Adequate backup needs to be in place for all of the environmental support functions. Supplies include backup food and water for anywhere between 3 days to 3 weeks, bilge pumps, plastic sheeting, sandbags, and ropes. Capture equipment and veterinary medical supplies are of utmost importance.

Disaster Types

Each type of disaster has its own challenges and difficulties. Hurricanes are prevalent in certain geographic areas and recently have caused serious and devastating damage. Many zoos are at risk; both major and smaller facilities can be affected. Normally extensive preparation can be made before a hurricane hits, as there is usually advanced warning. Hurricane Katrina was massive, and much of the damage occurred from post-event flooding. Although the Audubon Zoo was seriously affected, the physical damages to facilities and the grounds were fairly minor. The widespread effects of Katrina on the infrastructure of New Orleans and Audubon Zoo staff availability were immense and became the primary problem. The zoo was closed for a period of time, which puts staff out of work and affects the public.

Flooding even without a hurricane can also cause immense damage and serious problems. Floods are likely the most common disaster zoos might face as many zoos are near creeks, rivers, and flood plains. Besides the immediate danger an excess amount of water in abnormal places can pose (i.e., drowning), there can be several other hazards and threats. At the Huston Zoo a gorilla died of shigellosis after consuming contaminated water from a backed-up drain. There is also the risk of hypothermia if animals are exposed to cold water especially for prolonged periods of time.

Tornados usually do not allow for much notice. No above-ground structure can withstand a major tornado. Besides building collapses and immediate injury and death from this, items strewn around zoo grounds and exhibits can pose threats in and of themselves.

Earthquakes can occur anywhere, but certainly geographic areas, which are prone to earthquakes, are known. Facilities here need to take preemptive precautions for securing items that can fall and that can be particularly dangerous if they do (i.e., oxygen tanks, heavy items). As with hurricanes, many times the after-event sequelae can be more dangerous (i.e., fires from broken gas lines, inaccessibility).

Fires have become particularly dangerous especially in certain regions. Fires can be extremely unpredictable in their course and their level of severity. If it is not possible to evacuate the facility, well thought out plans for constructing fire breaks in cooperation with the fire department and firefighters need to have been worked out ahead of time. There are wildlife facilities, which have successfully done this multiple times but only with these well laid out plans and advanced chain of command instructions in place.

Farther down the list of probable occurrences are toxic spills. But these are real possibilities especially since many zoos are in proximity to freeway and railways where these spills can occur. Again, a plan of action should be worked out with the appropriate local authorities.

Blizzards are a common occurrence in many parts of the country and with blizzards intense cold can also be present. Having appropriate equipment in place to adequately heat not only enclosures but also infrastructure elements is mandatory. On the flip side, drought and intense heat cause their own problems. Zoos that are located in very hot environments have to deal with this problem sometimes on a daily basis, and many times they have shortened daytime hours so that animals do not have to be outside during the worse part of the day. Zoos should also keep in mind what species are not compatible with their geographic climate extremes.

Acts of war, a manmade disaster may affect some zoos more than natural disasters. This seems to be the case outside of the U.S. The zoo in Baghdad suffered immensely during the current war in Iraq, where many animals were lost to starvation and lack of care. European Zoos have also been severely affected during world wars.

Species-Specific Concerns

There are species-specific concerns and needs, which should be thought of and taken into consideration after a disaster.


Birds are difficult to deal with especially since this group is so diverse with 28 or more different orders. A thorough needs assessment is advised for each collection since each species may require a different diet; mixed seed diets, pellets, commercial chow, canned substitutes for protein, vegetables, fruit and other related products should also be considered as emergency provisions. Birds should have identification bands, tattoos, microchips, or DNA fingerprinting to help identify them if they escape. Behavior can be different for wild-caught versus captive-reared birds. Birds have a high tendency to flee, but territorial birds may stay in close proximity and others will return to be with their flock members. Almost immediately after the disaster, food-seeking activity will begin. To capture escaped birds, suggestions include taking advantage of nocturnal resting habits, using conspecifics as lures, and using baited traps and mist nets.

Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptiles and amphibians present their own unique challenges for handling during and after a disaster. They are likely to leave their enclosures if a suitable opening occurs and tend to be secretive, typically hiding or fleeing to avoid interactions with large vertebrates such as humans and domestic dogs. They can aggregate in areas with appropriate environmental conditions. Some reptiles such as crocodilians (alligators, caimans, crocodiles, and gavials), large monitor lizards (e.g., water monitors, Komodo dragons, Nile monitors, and any other species or specimen in excess of 2 feet in snout-vent length), large tegu lizards, large iguanas (green iguanas and rock iguanas), large constricting snakes (e.g., anacondas, reticulated pythons, Burmese pythons, African rock pythons, or any other species or specimens in excess of 8 feet SVL), venomous snakes (e.g., elapids, viperids, and rear-fanged colubrids and large aquatic turtles (e.g., snapping turtles, alligator snapping turtles, softshell turtles) are dangerous and can inflict severe bodily harm. Many can have unpredictable behavior; even normally placid specimens can become aggressive when removed from their normal environment. When trying to recapture these dangerous reptile species, people should not work alone and should always work with at least another person, so that if an altercation occurs, help can be obtained. Safety is the priority.

If a dangerous and/or venomous reptile cannot be captured and contained safely, it should be killed in as humane a manner as possible. Injured and ill reptiles will need medical attention. All moribund and dangerous animals without safe housing should be humanely destroyed. Aquatic species can move toward large bodies of water, and once in a river or lake can be extremely difficult to recapture. Reptiles need to be housed separately and fed appropriately. Herbivores can be fed fresh grass clippings and or allowed to browse 3x/week. Small insectivores need to be fed 2–3x/week, and others can go without food for days to weeks at a time. Each institution should have an up-to-date and accurate inventory so that all reptiles and amphibians in a disaster can be accounted for. Dangerous reptiles need to be identified ahead of time and appropriate information disseminated to the institution’s staff so that they are prepared to handle a dangerous reptile during a crisis.

Large Hoofstock

Large hoofstock such as elephants, rhinos, giraffe and buffalo can readily become disoriented, panic and flee from perceived threats. Social hoofstock will attempt to regroup after the disaster. Only experienced handlers should attempt to control trained elephants in unfamiliar surroundings. An attempt may be made to direct movement of any hoofstock with the manipulation of visual barriers (such as opaque plastic sheeting) and vehicles. Their long flight distance can easily produce panic and/or stampede. Chemical immobilization may need to be used. Stadiums, heavily roped-off large stands of trees with visual barriers may be used as temporary enclosures. Loud noises, sudden movements and unfamiliar human presence can easily stress large hoofstock. Quiet areas away from traffic, noise (such as heavy machinery), and inquisitive humans need to be set up. Potable water should be available at all times. Grass hays can be used for short-term nutrition. Legumes and grains should only be used in limited amounts if at all. Produce may supplement the diet but is not necessary. Adequate shade and ventilation are critical. Shelter from wind, rain, and snow and bedding should be used in cold weather.

Small Hoofstock

Small hoofstock tend to be grazers and browsers with herding tendencies. There is a high risk of injury from predators (including dogs), vehicles, humans, and from digestive disorders from overeating, or ingestion of toxic plants, and foreign bodies. Small ruminants attempt to regroup after the disaster and may form mixed-species groups. Males of most species are territorial and dangerous, especially to other males and humans who enter their perceived territory. Groups of animals may be herded to the holding area by manipulation of a visual barrier such as opaque plastic sheeting or baffle boards. The key is to move slowly and quietly. Perimeter fence height is dependent on the species contained; eight feet-high fences are usually adequate for most species. Exotic goats are very agile and can scale most barriers. Visual barriers around the fence can help to make animals feel secure. Burlap can be attached to the fence on the outside to prevent ingestion. Visual barriers should also be placed within the enclosures (bales of straw or hay, large boxes, etc.). Fresh water and adequate shade must be provided. With multiple feeding stations, subordinate animals must have access to feed. Grass and hay are adequate for short-term nutrition. Small ruminants will usually consume 2 to 4% of body weight daily. Inadequate ventilation causes respiratory problems; therefore, totally enclosed environments are not recommended. Most small ruminants can tolerate low temperatures if adequate bedding and shelter from wind, rain, and snow are provided. South American camelids are especially at risk from hyperthermia in hot or humid environments.

Nonhuman Primates

Most nonhuman primates will resort to trees or other high places when stressed. All are dangerous and unpredictable. While at-large, they are at risk from vehicles and humans.

Large primates may be able to be moved by providing directed escape routes. Baiting enclosures with a preferred food item (i.e., fruit) may be used if the animals are human oriented. Cornering an animal in a tree and chemical immobilization is also an option.

Unless the social status of individuals is known and the animals are monitored closely, primates should be individually housed. Since large primates can be very destructive and are extremely manipulative and intelligent, cages must be sturdy and locked at all times. Animals should be kept in quiet surroundings and away from inquisitive humans. Potable water and adequate nutrition must be provided. Primate chow and produce are sufficient.

Unsanitary conditions may develop in holding cages. Enteric pathogens (Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, Balantidium) will take a toll, especially on neonates, weanlings, and geriatrics. Stress and inadequate ventilation may lead to pneumonia, colds, and flu. These diseases are zoonotic, so proper hygiene of caretakers is critical. Masks and gloves are recommended when servicing these animals.


Carnivores can become disoriented during the disaster, flee from perceived threats if possible, and may attack if no escape route is available. Cats will usually begin searching for food at night. Bears explore sooner, usually during the day. All carnivores are a threat to approaching humans, especially if no escape route is available. Some animals may return to familiar holding areas if baited with food and the area is kept quiet and free of humans. Directed movement by providing directed escape routes is difficult at best, but it can be tried by experienced personnel if animals present no immediate danger to people. Keep human presence to a minimum. Chemical immobilization is usually the best option. Carnivores are individually housed unless compatibility in small enclosures is known. Portable water is essential. Cats can be fresh meat or a commercial frozen diet daily at approximately 5% of body weight. If fresh meat is used long term, vitamin supplementation will be required to correct the Ca:P imbalance. Bears are more adaptable and will usually consume dog chow fed at 3–5% of body weight daily. Their diet should be supplemented with meat, fish, and produce. Carnivores are susceptible to hyperthermia. Shade and water should be provided at all times. Misting the crates may also provide relief. Most species are fairly cold tolerant if shelter from wind is provided.

Small Mammals

Small mammals are primarily solitary, and most are very susceptible to stress and flight injuries, with high mortality after capture. They tend to flee and find the first available safe hiding spot and remain hidden until hunger and thirst become driving forces. Small mammals tend to venture out during periods of decreasing light and outside activity to begin foraging or hunting for food. These animals will rarely be seen. Setting baited live traps is probably the best method of capture. You may be able to net an animal if spotted. These animals are not aggressive unless threatened and unable to flee. Many will dig or gnaw, so crate material should be impenetrable and inspected frequently for damage. Mortality will be high after capture. Animals should be kept in a quiet darkened area, away from loud noises, traffic, and inquisitive people to minimize injuries.

Diets are varied. Insectivores can survive on a chopped meat, hard-boiled egg, milk, and produce diet. Herbivores should be given pellets (rodent or rabbit chow), produce, and good-quality hay. Potable water should be available at all times. Bacterial diseases, especially enteric, can be fatal.

Fish and Aquarium Species

Fish have strict and unforgiving environmental needs. The Aquarium of the Americas (NO) lost virtually all of its 10,000 fish, except for eight large tarpons, the only fish survivors. Before Hurricane Katrina struck, officials closed the aquarium early. When the storm hit, the aquarium lost power and relied on their generator for keeping critical equipment operational. The aquarium had plenty of food and fresh water, but within days of Katrina’s passing, the back-up power supply failed, killing the facility’s life-support systems. Thousands of fish died due to lack of oxygen and irregular temperatures (with higher temperatures, less oxygen is dissolved in water and more aeration is required). The aquarium staff had help from local police officers. “We actually had New Orleans police officers and National Guardsmen around and they were given a crash course in how to take care of some of the animals,” a staff member was quoted. “Even when our staff had to be evacuated out for our own safety, the police officers were able to stay back and get food to those animals and keep a good number of them alive.”


The captive wildlife facility must be prepared with a concise plan in place and must anticipate specific disaster needs. It is vital to know what specific animals’ needs are and what your responses to these needs will be. Appropriate back-up plans should be made and most importantly coordinate with the zoo and aquarium community.

Literature Cited

1.  Emergency Preparedness and Responses. September 2008. American Veterinary Medical Association. Schaumburg, IL.


Speaker Information
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Lisa B. Done, DVM, MPVM
Oxnard, CA, USA

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