Hurricane Irma: Zoos, Wildlife Centers Hunker Down as Historic Storm Reaches Florida

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As Hurricane Irma's powerful winds began hitting the Florida Keys on Saturday, many animals — including howler monkeys, dingoes and turtles — were safely tucked away in their shelters or elsewhere.

Zoos and conservation centers in South Florida moved their animals to safety earlier in the week as forecasts for the Sunshine State grew increasingly dire.

At the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society in West Palm Beach, workers began moving smaller animals into facilities that doubled as hurricane shelters on Wednesday morning, said its communications director, Naki Carter. The zoo’s tiger, jaguar, bear and Komodo dragon populations would be staying put, she said, because their habitats already double as hurricane shelters.

“They will be locked inside of those shelters before the storm comes,” she said, adding that the zoo’s six-person storm team would monitor Irma from the Animal Care Center, the facility's largest hurricane shelter.

“That is our command center," she said, adding, "also our surgery and triage center."

The zoo has more than 150 animals, 30 percent of which had been relocated by Thursday evening, Carter said. Among them were birds and smaller mammals.

Carter said the zoo had about 10 days of food for most animals, with about a month’s worth for larger animals. The zoo had also made arrangements to get additional food after the storm passes, she said.

“We are prepared for the worst and hopeful for the best," Carter said. "We are preparing for a Category 5 to make direct impact with our zoo." Workers boarded up windows and put hurricane-proof shutters and glass in place throughout the 23-acre facility as well.

In a statement Wednesday, the Miami Zoo said it would not evacuate animals "since hurricanes can change direction at the last minute, and you run the risk of evacuating to a more dangerous location."

“The stress of moving the animals can be more dangerous than riding out the storm," the zoo said on its Facebook page.

Animals considered more dangerous will be kept in secure houses made of concrete, the statement said, adding that such animals survived the devastating Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago unharmed.

News of the hurricane conjured images of wildlife riding our previous storms from public facilities instead of their enclosures, like the iconic image of more than 50 flamingos taking shelter from Hurricane Georges in a men's bathroom in 1998.

At the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, a nonprofit in Loxahatchee, founder and president Dr. Paul Reillo said Thursday night that he and other staff members would ride out the storm with hundreds of rare and endangered animals. "We’re with them every step of the way," he said. "You can't crate them and walk away — our prime directive is to save lives here."

The foundation was prepared to bring smaller animals indoors before Irma hits, while larger animals may have to ride out the storm outdoors, Reillo said.

"We have large African antelope here, and unfortunately they cannot be caught up and put in small spaces," he said. "They're out in their environment, and hopefully they’ll hunker down and be fine."

Reillo said many zoos and centers don't have the space or expertise to evacuate animals that need special care, especially endangered species. "Facilities are not provisioned to do that on normal day, much less in an emergency," he said. "We're kind of stuck with riding these things out."

Reillo also said many wildlife facilities were forced into a waiting game of seeing where and how severe the hurricane would be.

"A mile or two can make a huge difference for a wildlife facility," he said of a storm's landfall. "It's not just the stress on the animals of catching them up, but then realizing you have to have enclosures to release them into after the storm passes."

Facilities in the area will also work together to help one another after the storm, he said.

"It's our life's work. It’s not about the people — this is bigger than us," he said. "It's about believing that wildlife deserves a chance for the future. We should do all we can to prevent extinction."

CORRECTION (Sept. 8, 2017, 10:15): An earlier version of this article misstated the year 50 flamingos were pictured taking shelter in a men’s bathroom during Hurricane Georges. It was 1998, not 1988.