Texas Zoo

Toby Zaplac, front, carries an opossum, which was evacuated from the Texas Zoo due to flooding from Hurricane Harvey, while volunteers from the Fort Worth Zoo and San Antonio Zoo carry other animals in this 2017 Advocate file photo.

A new cooperative effort has prepared the Texas Zoo in Victoria to better withstand flooding and securely evacuate dangerous animals during potential emergency conditions.

In 2017 during Hurricane Harvey, the zoo was inundated with more than 5 feet of floodwater. Since then, the facility’s leadership has collaborated with the city of Victoria and the Zoological Disaster Rescue, Response and Recovery network (ZDR3 USA) to develop a plan to secure the facility and safely evacuate animals during flooding events.

“We always want to err on the side of caution,” said Cari Wittenborn, manager of animal health and welfare at the Texas Zoo. “There’s a window of when we can safely get these animals out, but at the same time we also don’t want to jump the gun and evacuate too soon and put those animals through undue stress.”

ZDR3 USA is an industry-led effort that provides support to zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries, and other exotic animal businesses before, during and after significant incidents. Previously, the zoo really only had a plan to shelter in place during emergencies, said Wittenborn. That works during a wind event, she said, but doesn’t during a flood.

Director of the Texas Zoo Liz Jensen conferred with the zoo’s board-certified veterinarian, City of Victoria officials, and ZDR3 USA to make a proactive plan for flooding events and evacuation. The biggest question the zoo was faced with answering was when they’d need to begin to evacuate their animals, and if so, where to.

“Predicting rainfall and river flood stage can be tricky and the Texas Zoo’s stance is to err on the side of caution and plan proactively,” Jensen said.

Any time the river is forecasted to reach 29.5 feet the zoo begins preparations for a potential evacuation, Wittenborn said.

Many of the Zoo’s animals can quickly be moved to temporary housing off zoo grounds during an emergency, but the Texas Zoo is home to a number of dangerous species, including bears, jaguars, spider monkeys and others, who require specialized enclosures to be housed safely. In the face of a flood event that might damage enclosure integrity, evacuating those dangerous animals is the zoo’s first priority.

ZDR3 USA was able to arrange for temporary housing for all of the Texas Zoo’s animals through their network of partner facilities. Eight zoos and sanctuaries throughout Texas volunteered to aid the Texas Zoo in the event an evacuation became necessary by providing personnel support, vehicles to transport animals, and holding space for the jaguars, black bears, red wolves, alligators, and more. Other zoological facilities were on standby ready to provide additional aid to zoo staff as needed.

These partnerships are for a year, said Wittenborn. Every January the Zoo will reach out to each of the partners to confirm that they can continue accepting the Zoo’s animals for another year.

During the May rain this year, the Guadalupe River’s water level remained low enough that it was determined an evacuation of the zoo was not necessary. However, the Texas Zoo leadership said the process of planning and preparing for potential flood conditions was incredibly valuable. The Director of ZDR3 USA, Julia Wagner, met with Texas Zoo leadership and City of Victoria Parks and Recreation Director Jason Alfaro to discuss how to best streamline and enhance the zoo’s existing contingency plans, and used the opportunity as a drill.

The Zoo is also working on acquiring a third pump to help mitigate flooding effects during disasters and sandbags to help protect Zoo buildings.

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