It’s hard enough to evacuate a family of three when disaster strikes, let alone large groups of frightened animals. However, many zoos have detailed emergency plans in place, and the Los Angeles Zoo—home to more than 1400 animals—is no exception. As Smithsonian reports, the zoo had to evacuate some of its birds and smaller primates last week when nearby Griffith Park caught fire, all while other wildfires continued to destroy large swathes of land around the state of California.
Firefighters spent over seven hours working to extinguish the blaze, which ignited in a hard-to-reach area of the park. Meanwhile, zoo staff herded lemurs and show birds into cages with other small animals in order to evacuate them. According to statements made by the zoo on social media, no animals were harmed by the smoke, and those animals have since returned to their regular habitats.
Fortunately, this incident was contained and no fire ever entered zoo grounds, but staff are prepared for worst-case scenarios. LA Zoo employees know which animals to evacuate and which ones to shelter in place during emergencies.
“Smaller, non-venomous reptiles and mammals that can be easily handled may be packed up for relocation,” a zoo spokesperson told Smithsonian. “Larger animals will be sheltered in place in their night quarters for a variety of reasons that ultimately depend on the specific animal and the situation.”
The Santa Barbara Zoo also has species-specific emergency plans in place. According to an NPR article from 2017, when a nearby wildfire raised alarm and prompted small-scale evacuations, the zoo reviewed its plans for protecting 500 animals from disaster. Zoo staff members said some animals—like two elderly elephants, 50 “fragile” flamingos, and giraffes that were too tall to fit under highway underpasses—would have to stay put. Other animals would be trapped, placed in crates, and transported to safer locations. Big cats would need to be tranquilized (by hand, not by dart gun) before being moved into steel evacuation crates.
A few animals were evacuated at the time, including two reindeer, a baby anteater, and hard-to-catch condors. Some animals are harder to trap than others, and Chinese alligators are surprisingly easy to round up. "They usually just throw a towel over her head so she can't see them and they just jump on her," Dr. Julie Barnes, director of Animal Care and Health at the Santa Barbara Zoo, told NPR last year.
In addition to these plans, zoos also have extinguishers and fire breaks placed strategically throughout the grounds, and many staff are trained in proper evacuation procedures.