This is a guest blog written by Mandy Matson, Communications Volunteer for Zoological Disaster Response, Rescue, and Recovery
Hurricane Ian did not just destroy human homes; it damaged Florida zoos, aquariums, and other facilities that house non-domestic animals. Hurricane-strength winds and tornadoes the storm spawned left sites littered with downed trees and damaged electrical infrastructure.
Personnel at devastated facilities were faced with the overwhelming task of responding to the immediate needs of the animals in their care, in addition to the wreckage of their own homes—and the psychological impact of riding out the deadliest storm to hit Florida since 1935.
As the storm departed Florida, a team from Zoological Disaster Response, Rescue, and Recovery (ZDR3) arrived to provide specialized assistance.
Although there are many excellent nonprofit and governmental disaster response organizations for domestic animals, they are often not equipped to manage the unique needs of non-domestic collections. The ZDR3 Response Network is composed of zoological facilities that volunteer their staff and other resources (food for animals, equipment, trucks, etc) to assist personnel at other facilities. This peer-to-peer support model ensures that responders are experienced working around non-domestic animal collections, which can include dangerous animals, such as alligators and big cats.
Two American Humane Certified™ parks – Fort Worth Zoo and San Antonio Zoo – deployed personnel critical to the response effort. Fort Worth Zoo Director Michael Fouraker is the President and Treasurer of ZDR3, which he co-founded in 2019. Because Fouraker is one of the most experienced disaster responders in the zoo industry, ZDR3 Executive Director Julia Wagner asked him to join another responder for initial damage assessment at impacted facilities.
“It’s critical that experienced, objective zoo specialists visit each site to determine what resources are required,” Wagner explains. “In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, staff are often too overwhelmed to identify their next steps toward recovery.”
When Fouraker reported the level of damage at Iguanaland in Punta Gorda, Florida, Wagner deployed an experienced crew with specific skills: the San Antonio Zoo crew, which includes a chainsaw team, an electrician, and a welder. They did not make this decision lightly, because the crew needed to travel 26 hours to reach the site.
“What is important to understand is that every ZDR3 Network facility member that sends a team is volunteering their staff’s time, and often other resources, to colleagues at another facility,” says Wagner. “That’s a big ask.”
She is especially proud that 40 network facilities from around the country offered to deploy a team.
Two weeks after Ian made landfall ZDR3 had assisted 12 zoological facilities. Six requested consultations, six required direct onsite support. Wagner is still actively communicating with sites that need ongoing assistance.
ZDR3 is an incorporated 501(c)(3) that includes more than 110 Network member facilities across 26 states. The network continues growing as word about their work spreads.
“We are ready to assist impacted facilities before, during, and after significant incidents—including those that are not weather related,” says Wagner. “As a community of zoos and aquariums, we are stronger together.”
Additional Humane Certified™ facilities that are members of the ZDR3 Network include Pittsburgh Zoo, Wild Hearts African Farm & Petting Zoo, Roer’s Zoofari and Tanganyika Wildlife Park.