Transportation for big cats now available

July 16, 2012 at 2:16 a.m.

Fabrication company Gene's Machine donated labor and materials to build four transport crates for Gaia, pictured here, and Aesa, the Texas Zoo's two Barbary lions and the two tigers.

Fabrication company Gene's Machine donated labor and materials to build four transport crates for Gaia, pictured here, and Aesa, the Texas Zoo's two Barbary lions and the two tigers.   Todd Krainin for The Victoria Advocate

Gene's Machine employee Louis Berger has worked on many projects during his 50-year career as a welder.

He has worked on vessels, various types of oil field equipment and even a fluid swivel that helped keep transportation going in the Philippines.

But it was not until recently that he worked on his first lion crates.

"They turned out nice," said Berger, as he stood next to the gigantic lion crates he had spent countless hours welding over the last two months. "I just hope they hold everything in them."

Gene's Machine, one of the largest fabrication companies in South Texas, donated its labor and equipment to make four transport crates for the Texas Zoo's two Barbary lions and two Bengal tigers.

Zoo staff picked up the crates on July 5.

"If for some reason there was a flood, a hurricane or some other natural disaster, if we had to move the cats, we didn't have the ability to do so," said Michael Magaw, animal curator at the Texas Zoo. "Now, we do."

"There's no way we could have gotten those crates without them," he continued.

In May, former Texas Zoo executive director Andrea Blomberg contacted Gene's Machine in hopes that they would help design, build and make a donation toward the needed crates, which cost about $5,500 for all four.

A deal was worked out where the zoo would pay $4,000, $1,000 per crate, to pay for materials and Gene's Machine would donate the labor and equipment, said Gene's Machine shop foreman Tim Peyton.

"As a company, we try to do good things," said Dwaine Pratka. "We're trying to be more oriented about the needs of the community."

Regional Steel, namely Elton Calhoun, also helped with the project by providing materials at a discounted cost, said Peyton.

Very preliminary new drafts of FEMA floodplain maps indicate the zoo will move from being half in a floodway and half in a flood fringe to being totally in a floodway, which is the natural conduit for flood waters.

The Texas Zoo has taken several precautions to prepare for any potential disaster, including flood gates fitted with aluminum panels - one at the front entrance and another at the back that can be supplemented with tarps and sandbags; an aboveground drainage valve that can be closed to keep river water from backing up into the zoo and animal exhibit platforms; and berms are being heightened 3 more inches.

The lion exhibit was built at an elevated height in an effort to prevent flooding.

If the situation got too bad, though, there was no way zoo staff could have transported the almost 600-pound tigers and nearly 300-pound lions to the safety of sister zoos elsewhere.

The crates, which can fit on a flatbed trailer, will also provide a means to transport the felines to the veterinarian if needed.

Now that the zoo has the crates, they still have much more to do to actually put them to use if a situation arises.

The cats have to be trained to go into the large, black, steel-wheeled crates and the lion exhibit needs to be renovated with a ramp to roll the crates up to the exhibit entry.

Preliminary preparations are expected to begin on the latter task later this month.

The revamped lion exhibit, which the zoo is still fundraising for, will feature not only a ramp, but also will triple in size.

"Without volunteers and the goodwill of the community, it would take us years to raise the money and save money to get these projects done," said Magaw. "They are what keep us going."



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