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What will zoos do to protect animals when Hurricane Irma strikes?

As Hurricane Irma bears down on southern Florida, at least six different zoos and conservatories in the area have announced they plan to hunker down and ride the storm out with their animals rather than evacuate.

But while that may sound like a dangerous strategy for the animals kept in cages, tanks and enclosures, sticking things out is actually considered by many experts the safest one. According to NPR, the stress evacuation puts on animals, combined with the unpredictability of hurricanes, makes it not worth it to most zoo officials, who say the process could even prove fatal for some animals.

Zoo Miami has made it clear that it is not moving.

“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,” communications director Ron Magill told NPR.

In a post to its Facebook page, the zoo also assured the public that it had stocked up on extra food and water, cleared any remaining debris and housed the animals “in their secure night houses, which are made of poured concrete and welded metal.” 

The zoo also referenced Hurricane Andrew, one of the worst recorded storms to ever hit Florida, pointing out that all of its animals survived then. Speaking with the Miami Herald, Magill said the zoo is even better prepared this time.

Meanwhile, the Palm Beach Zoo said on Facebook that it also will be staying put and keeping their animals in their usual shelters, but also added that some animals would actually be best if left on their own during the storm as they would instinctively seek out the best shelter for themselves, without the stress of being confined or rounded up.

Similarly, the Lion Country Safari in Palm Beach shared a video on Twitter of several ostriches huddled in a field during a rainstorm, “similar to what you would see during a hurricane.” The Safari will keep its lions and other animals indoors during the storm, however, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Even places where the animals never go outside are battening down the hatches and staying put. The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory shared images on Facebook of staff boarding up the building, which features plenty of greenhouse-like glass that could be shattered in the storm.

In almost all cases, a team of zoo employees will be right there alongside the animals, staying with them until the storm passes.

In places where Irma is forecasted to potentially go next, zoos and wildlife centers are taking different approaches. The Oatland Island Wildlife Center in Savannah, Georgia, has already announced that it will be closed from Friday to Tuesday because of the storm. As of Thursday afternoon, however, Zoo Atlanta, Riverbanks Zoo & Garden in Columbia, South Carolina, and North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro have all not made any announcement about being closed.

For a look at how effective staying in place actually is, zoo officials only have to look back several weeks, to when Hurricane Harvey slammed coastal Texas, including Houston. Speaking with the Washington Post, Houston Zoo officials said flooding at the zoo itself was not a serious issue in the animal’s enclosures. By Aug. 29, the zoo was able to reopen.

Similarly, the Texas State Aquarium was able to partially reopen on Aug. 28 without any injuries to animals, according to the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

 
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