You may remember the iconic photo of a flock of flamingos stuffed into a bathroom at the Miami Metrozoo during Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago. And we were wondering: How do zoos and parks keep animals safe during a hurricane?
A few days after Hurricane Irma, WLRN’s Peter Haden went to Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee to talk with animal curator Ashleigh Kandrac about what happens before, during and after a storm. Here are some highlights of their conversation.
WLRN: We are here among some birds -- that looks like a pelican to me. There are some large walking birds back there. What do you do with these animals during the hurricane?
KANDRAC: The two species you're talking about are brown pelicans and greater rhea. Brown pelicans are native to Florida — so they're built to tolerate hurricanes to some degree. The greater Rhea is a flightless bird from South America. I peeked on them throughout the storm. All these birds were hunkered down with their butts to the wind and they were taking it pretty well.
You don't take them inside during a hurricane?
We might consider it if we are getting a direct hit from a category five. But, no, for the most part it's actually safer for them to be out in their normal space. They're not stressed that way and they seem to know what to do in the storms. The greater kudus — same thing. Everybody's grouped together where they feel safe — generally not near any structures or trees. They seem to know there's a risk of things falling down on them and they just hang out in the middle of the fields. Ostrich lay down in ditches with their head down and just ride out the storm.
Can you sense that they sense that a big storm is coming?
Absolutely. The blackbuck is generally shy and skittish and doesn't want to be around humans. Just before the storm, I drove through the preserve and I had some food with me. All 150 blackbuck ran right out to me. I could almost touch them — which is completely out of character for a blackbuck. I think they knew they needed to feed up and get their energy because it was going to be a long ride through the storm.
During the storm, a lot of the animals seemed extra tolerant and calm and peaceful. They almost knew to just be patient — especially the chimpanzees. They tend to be very volatile animals. They have arguments and aggression towards each other. During the storm, the chimps were very civilized. There were definitely interesting species behaviors throughout the storm — before, during and after.
The lions have a house they go to every night. It was built with hurricanes in mind because we are in South Florida. Hero is one of our older male lions. I checked on him right after the storm and he was asleep. He didn’t care — he slept right through the hurricane.
Our chimpanzees live on islands but they were all brought into their houses during the storm — similar to what our lions do. Chimpanzees don't go into a house every day, but we do bring them in for hurricane.
We have 17 giraffes. The newest was born August 31st. She was not even two weeks old during the hurricane. But she was very resilient. She stood up the whole time and her mom was with her — she was up and nursing and walking around throughout the storm. They did really well.
Were the giraffe outside during the hurricane?
Yes. We gave them access to pens where they have shelter. But again, most of them chose to be out in the open away from any structure. They put their heads down — they know how to make themselves more aerodynamic. They put their butt in the wind and put their head down. Even in lightning storms, they all seem to know what to do. Because, obviously, if you're a really tall animal, you might be at risk when there's lightning around.
The rhinos were left in their night quarters during the storm. They go into their enclosure every night, so it’s part of their routine.
How did the rhinos react when you released them?
The seemed pretty excited. They go through a chute system every morning; it’s like a narrow hallway. When we let the rhinos out after the storm, they were all jockeying for space — all 10 rhinos trying to get into a space big enough for one. It was like a funnel of rhinos. It was funny. They were all ready to go and get in the mud and wallow a little and have some fun. They were definitely excited to get out.
Not so different from people.