Home evacuations easy compared to zoo evacuation

When zoos need to evacuate, everything depends on time and level of threat


Kristin Parker

Collage of four different zoo animals in their element.

Flames in the distance eat away the brush. Wireless Emergency Alerts pop up on phones warning residents to evacuate. An orange hue takes over the blue skies. Ashes sprinkle from the sky like the drizzling of snow on a winter morning. Families are overcome with panic as they grab their belongings and load up their SUVs with photo albums and pets. 

Zoos and animal hospitals begin evacuating their staff. But how does one evacuate a thousand pound elephant? How do you carefully transport an eagle with a broken wing? And what if you needed to provide food, medical supplies, and proper housing for over 600 animals? 

California’s frequent fires require zoos and animal hospitals to be ready to evacuate at all times. When it’s necessary to leave, they follow a strict plan to evacuate all, or at least some of their animals in a limited time. 

“As far as planning the evacuation goes, that is something that the zoo had in place since we opened,” said Angie Kralland, zookeeper and general manager at the Monterey Zoo, Angie Kralland.  “It is actually a requirement for our licensing to have an up -to-date emergency action plan. We practice preparing for an evacuation routinely, and we can be set up and ready to start loading animals in under two hours.”

Kralland has worked at the Monterey Zoo for nearly six years. 

When zoos and animal hospitals need to evacuate, everything depends on time and the level of threat. 

“The most complicated part would be the logistics of maintaining records and identifications of all of the wildlife in our care,” said Peter Flowers, Hospital and Rehabilitation Manager at Lindsay Wildlife. Flowers has over 20 years of experience in the zoo and wildlife field. 

The evacuation process is roughly the same across different zoos and animal hospitals. 

“We would begin with making sure all guests and staff are safely evacuated. Then we have ‘strings’ or teams of animal care specialists that have expertise in loading each of the animals safely into evacuation vehicles,” said Caterina Meyers, Vice President of Education at the Conservation Society of California, which operates the Oakland Zoo. 

“If we need to actually go, the zookeepers start loading animals into transport crates while volunteers take them to the vans or trailers,” Kralland said. Volunteers play a huge role in making evacuations possible.

Each zoo and animal hospital has its own unique variations of evacuation plans, and in some cases it’s impossible to move every animal. 

“The elephants are on the plan to stay at the zoo during evacuation. The elephants go into their metal barn and the big cats go into their night enclosures which are metal on concrete and away from flammable material. There would be staff that stays behind to hose everything down and keep the enclosures wet to prevent any fire from getting too close,” Kralland said.

After evacuating the animals that can be moved, temporary housing is another challenge. “We have partner agencies including wildlife refuges, [California Department of] Fish and Wildlife and other conservation agencies that would be counted on to help us identify appropriate temporary housing for the animals,” Meyers said.

Animals are taken to secure locations where they can be housed until it is safe for them to return. “Typically they stay in their transport crates and will be secured in an open lot or barn that community members donate,” Kralland said

All animals treated and housed at Lindsay Wildlife, located in Walnut Creek, are native to the area. This allows for a secondary option after evacuating the wildlife. “In the hospital all of the wildlife would be quickly evaluated, and if they are deemed fit for release, then we would have our staff and volunteers work to collect and release the animals in fitting and safe locations away from fire danger,” Flowers said.

While taking care of wild animals during wildfire season is clearly a job for experts, there are many ways for students to help support local zoos and animal hospitals. Educating the public about fire prevention is one option Zoo and animal hospital websites frequently have information about volunteer opportunities and internships for teens. 

Students can also reach out to local zoos and animal hospitals to learn how they can contribute. They can follow animal organizations on social media and watch for announcements that call for specific needs. Lastly, donating money, while not as up and close and personal as other options, can provide these organizations with critical funds to support a variety of needs.

So as the fire crests the hill, and monkeys and birds are put into their designated cages, zoo and animal hospital staff are not alone. Volunteers arrive with extra crates and food for the animals. Community members donate their vans and trucks and give directions to their barns that can be used as temporary housing for animals. It’s a complicated dance with a cast of thousands, but during fire season it’s also a reminder that communities will always have each other’s backs. Even those with feathers and fur.