When Fire Threatens the Animals: Keeping the Santa Barbara Zoo Safe
Chadwick the African lion at the Santa Barbara Zoo (Sheri Horiszny/KQED)
Chadwick the African Lion gets up slowly from a late-morning nap in a spot of warm sunshine that has become somewhat of a rarity in these often smoke-filled days here at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
“He’s a very majestic older lion,” Dr. Julie Barnes, director of animal care and health at the Santa Barbara Zoo, tells a visitor. “He’s 19 years old, so he is definitely geriatric at this time. But he is very beloved here by the people who work at the zoo and by our visitors.”
The thick-maned lion is among 500 residents of the zoo. Officials have been on standby for their evacuation, should flames from the massive Thomas Fire get close to the zoo, which happened once already since the fire began on Dec. 4. Zoo officials have had their hands full, keeping the animals safe, even as evacuations have been lifted for the massive Thomas Fire still burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
“Good job, buddy,” Chadwick’s handler, Kristen Wieners, says as she lures the big cat up to the fence with a toot of a training whistle and the promise of a meaty reward.
Chadwick shakes off sleep and slowly approaches the fence.
“This is how a 19-year-old lion moves,” she says as she hands him a reward of raw meat stuffed into a cardboard paper towel tube. The lion grabs it and chews it between his giant paws, like a dog gnawing rawhide.
The cardboard tube acts like “an extra source of fiber,” in Chadwick’s diet, says Wieners: “Every time they come over (to the fence) we want to reinforce the cats and tell them it’s a really good thing to come over.”
The threat of wildfire has made that especially true. Chadwick and the zoo’s leopards, including a breeding pair of Amur leopards -- the rarest big cats in the world -- must be tranquilized before handlers can load them into sturdy steel evacuation crates lined up along the back side of the zoo.
Barnes says attracting big cats to the cage mesh allows keepers to inject them by hand rather than by dart gun.
“It makes the process very calm, very quick,” Barnes says. “Very low stress on the animals and then they just go to sleep, within about 10 to 15 minutes.”
That kind of efficiency is needed for a successful evacuation, especially at a zoo like this with about 150 species that would need capturing before they can be crated and carted to safety.
Barnes says you can’t wait until the flames are in your backyard to prepare for something like this. And so, during this fire, they took quick action, focusing first on evacuating their endangered California condors.
“We moved our condors down to the Los Angeles Zoo,” Barnes says. "They’re one of our priority species -- they’re highly endangered.”
And along for the ride were a few other vultures who Barnes says can be "tricky to trap."
“So once we actually got our hands on them, we just decided to move them out as well,” Barnes says.
Handlers also led two visiting reindeer -- Lightning and Holiday -- into horse trailers. They’ve headed home for the holidays. An infant anteater who needs round-the-clock bottle feeding is now bunking at the Fresno Zoo, about four hours north of here.
Some of the evacuees-in-waiting: several fennec foxes, a rambunctious baby gibbon and her foster mother, two silverback Western lowland gorillas, Asian small-clawed otters, golden lion tamarins and a rather petite Chinese alligator who, it turns out, is pretty easy to capture.
“They usually just throw a towel over her head so she can’t see them, and they just jump on her,” Barnes says.
It’s a different story, however, for the zoo’s two 46-year-old Asian elephants. Barnes says they suffer from age-related joint disease, and unlike circus elephants who routinely travel the country, these elderly pachyderms are not crate-trained.
“To move them into crates is very stressful for them,” Barnes says.
Their best chance of survival, she says, is to leave them in place. Their exhibit includes concrete housing that would provide protection. What’s more, she says, firefighters have staged vehicles around the zoo to defend it if necessary.
Same goes for the zoo’s five giraffes. Evacuating them would be a tall order, requiring a special truck and a carefully mapped out getaway route as giraffes can’t fit under freeway overpasses or under low-hanging power lines.
And, Barnes says, the zoo’s flock of 50 fragile flamingos would probably stay put as they’re easily injured and catching them can be a bit like herding cats.
As the fire burned in the hills above Santa Barbara, Barnes considered it safest to keep most of the animals in their nighttime holding pens for easy evacuation.
Well-behaved Chadwick being among the exceptions.
But now, with evacuation orders lifted for humans in the county, zoo officials have proclaimed all their animal residents free to again roam their outdoor exhibits -- much to the pleasure of zoo visitors.