How animals at Florida zoos and wildlife sanctuaries are hunkering down for Hurricane Ian

Animals will have to ride out the storm in a safe space as well.

September 28, 2022, 6:58 PM

More than 2.5 million Floridians were ordered to evacuate as Hurricane Ian barreled through the Gulf of Mexico with its sights set on the west coast of the Sunshine State.

What happens to the residents who can't evacuate -- the animals who live in the state's many zoos and wildlife sanctuaries?

All licensed captive wildlife owners have individualized storm preparation plans outlined in their required Critical Incident Plan, Ashlee Sklute, public information specialist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told ABC News. The FWC instituted additional requirements for captive wildlife owners after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 to reduce the threat of escape or injury of captive wildlife, Sklute said.

PHOTO: Flamingos take refuge in a bathroom at Miami-Metro Zoo, Sept. 14, 1999, as tropical-storm force winds from Hurricane Floyd approached the Miami area.
Flamingos take refuge in a bathroom at Miami-Metro Zoo, Sept. 14, 1999, as tropical-storm force winds from Hurricane Floyd approached the Miami area.
Tim Chapman/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Zookeepers and animal conservationists have been working in recent days to ensure their animal residents remain safe as the major hurricane threatens the region with Category 4 winds, torrential rain and devastating storm surge.

For the past several days, the veterinary team at the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford has been making sure that zookeepers have all of the adequate medications for animals. The nutrition team has been planning to make sure that the zoo has plenty of food to get the animals past the next several days and into next week, Christopher Torge, the director of animal operations there, told ABC News.

The next step is getting the animals into secure enclosures.

Since Florida is often in the path of strong storm systems forming in the Atlantic basin, most organizations are already equipped with enclosures that can withstand hurricane-force winds.

"First and foremost, it all starts with infrastructure," K. Simba Wiltz, CEO of the Central Florida Animal Reserve in St. Cloud, told ABC News. "The construction of our facility is such that we have the wind ratings necessary to be able to ride out and be certain that at least the structure should be fine."

PHOTO: Zoo Tampa's animal care team transfer red wolves indoors to keep them safe ahead of Hurricane Ian's arrival.
Zoo Tampa's animal care team transfer red wolves indoors to keep them safe ahead of Hurricane Ian's arrival.
Zoo Tampa

The majority of the habitats at ZooTampa have buildings called "night houses" that are attached to them and are constructed with masonry blocks, Christopher Massaro, vice president of zoological operations, told ABC News.

"So the majority of our animals, especially the ones that would be a little bit more, you can imagine, difficult to move ... they have those buildings attached right to their habitat so it makes it very easy to put them someplace safe during the storm," Massaro said, adding that the elephant's night house is the "safest building on campus."

At the Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation in Gainesville, Florida, many of the animals will remain in their large outdoor enclosures, Christine Janks, president and co-founder of the foundation, told ABC News.

The small foundation is on high ground, so the biggest threat there is not the flooding but the hurricane-force winds, which could down oaks and other large trees on the enclosures, Janks said, adding that the keepers try to move the animals into the most secure sections of their enclosures because of this.

PHOTO: Animals are seen at the Chase Sanctuary Wildlife Conservancy ahead of the hurricane.
Animals are seen at the Chase Sanctuary Wildlife Conservancy ahead of the hurricane.
Chase Sanctuary Wildlife Conservancy

Carson Springs houses about 100 animals at a time, including cheetahs, jaguars, otters, tortoises and Henry, the world's oldest male Indian rhinoceros, who is 41.5 years old and a fan favorite, Janks said.

Henry has a "nice house" and has been basking in the torrential downpours, Janks said.

"He's from India," she said. "It doesn't rain enough here for him, if that's possible."

By Wednesday morning, all of the animals at the ZooTampa were moved and prepared for the storm, Massaro said. The zoo's contingency plan for storm preparedness paves the way for every animal at the park to have a safe place to go, Massaro said.

The securing of animals fairs a bit differently for some of the smaller sanctuaries. At the Wild Florida Sanctuary in Riverview, up to 40 of the animal residents, small monkeys, lemurs, owls, and a skunk, will be riding out the storm inside the home of the sanctuary's vice president, Robyn King, she told ABC News.

Other animals, such as deer that are too fragile to move and a 400-pound pig, will have to remain outside, King said. But the keepers will make rounds to check on them during the storm, she said.

PHOTO: A Zoo Closed is seen at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens ahead of the hurricane.
A Zoo Closed is seen at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens ahead of the hurricane.
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens

Birds tend to be the most difficult animals to secure for inclement weather, the keepers said.

At Carson Springs, the smaller birds, such as the kookaburras, were brought inside to the now-crowded animal care building -- something the chatty animals are "not happy about," Janks said.

"They don't understand it's better than what they would get outside," she said, laughing.

The free flight aviary at ZooTampa proves complicated to evacuate, Massaro said, adding that while they try their best to train the birds to come down into the holding pens, they don't always comply.

At the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, the birds get kenneled and brought into a safe, secure building, where 11 crew members will also be riding out the storm, Torge said. There, the keepers can keep a "close eye" on them, and make them as comfortable as possible with extra food and blankets, as well as enrichment in the form of toys, Torge said, adding that the goal is to keep them as happy and safe as possible.

The big cats, however, are easier to handle due to their learned patterns, Wiltz said. They are also used to the frequent thunderstorms Florida experiences in the summer and early fall, he added.

"It's only once the real wind settles in that they will likely go into their dens and just not come out until the storm is passed," Wiltz said.

PHOTO: Misunkala, an 17 year old tiger, gives a big yawn.  Most of the cats sleep 16 hours a day, and will sleep through the duration of the storm.
Misunkala, an 17 year old tiger, gives a big yawn. Most of the cats sleep 16 hours a day, and will sleep through the duration of the storm.
Central Florida Animal Reserve

The giraffes and rhinoceroses at the Central Florida Zoo get locked into their barn with ample food and water, Torge said. Training also plays a big factor in preparedness there, so keepers are able to secure the animals into their kennels, Torge said.

"If we don't have to use nets, or anything like that, that's perfect," he said. "We prepare for this their entire lives to make sure that if we do have to do something, to move them from one area to another, that they're trained and that they're used to that."

While the keepers don't necessarily notice a change in behavior for the animals as the storm approaches, it is the animals that have to be moved that experience the most stress during storm preparations, they said.

"We've got to be taking into consideration the sensitivity of those animals that are moving to different environments in the zoo, and those would be the ones that would be a little bit more concerned about," Massaro said.

All of the animals at the Chase Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservancy in Webster require coaxing to get into their enclosures, Nina Vassallo, the sanctuary's founder, told ABC News. Sometimes, keepers are forced to catch the animals with a net, she added.

Generators are also an important factor when preparing for a storm.

While the animals were already situated, Janks' husband was still working Wednesday afternoon to make sure all the generators are in place to make sure that the thousands of pounds of frozen meat they have stored in outdoor freezers do not spoil in the likely event that they lose power.

"They are OK for a day or two," Janks said. "But if there's an extended power outage, I'd have a lot of really smelly chicken on my hands."

At the Chase Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservancy in Webster, the keepers have emphasized the need for working generators as well, as they expect to lose power, Vassallo said.

More than 1 million customers in the state were without power as of Wednesday afternoon.

Much of the population at Carson Springs fasts for one or two days a week -- something they would also do in the wild, Janks said. Their keepers are planning to have them fast on Thursday, when central Florida will experience the worst of the hurricane, she said.

Not only would the animals likely not come out to eat during the height of the storm, but the directive was also made to keep the zookeepers safe as well, Janks added.

At Central Florida Animal Reserve, most of the residents -- primarily big cats -- received a "special" early morning feed so they are feeling "quite healthy and happy at the moment," Wiltz said.

PHOTO: Annabelle, a two-toed sloth, is seen inside for the hurricane.
Annabelle, a two-toed sloth, is seen inside for the hurricane.
Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation Foundation

Keepers at the Chase Sanctuary have been working for the past 48 hours to prepare for the storm -- boarding up the last of their residents -- mostly primates, many critically endangered -- on Wednesday afternoon, Vassallo said. The animals' hurricane enclosures include doors that the keepers will be able to pass food and water through, Vassallo said.

"They'll stay in there indoors now probably for the next 24 to 36 hours," Vassallo said, adding that the sanctuary also houses antelope, tortoises, sloths and big birds. "We put them up with a lot of food."

Now that all of the preparations have been made, all that's left to do is hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. None of the facilities saw any escapees during storm preparations, the keepers said.

"We have got the residents in the best possible position that they can be in now, making sure that all of the staff and the support scenes are also going to be in the best possible position," Wiltz said.

Once the storm passes and it is safe to travel again, the facilities are anticipating a massive cleanup, including debris and tree branches that may have flown away amid the heavy winds.

The facilities also coordinate with emergency services and members of the community throughout the emergency and cleanup efforts, Wiltz said.

"We'll begin recovery efforts as soon as it's safe," Wiltz said.

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