Although zoos are usually regarded as modern Noah’s Arks, they can turn into battered dinghies in disasters – like any other achievement of our civilization. Moreover, the inhabitants of zoos are more vulnerable since the systems designed to prevent escape often reduce their chance of survival. The fates of escaping big animals are not too promising either; they are usually hunted down in order to protect people.
There can be disasters of either natural or human origin. Could we avoid these tragedies? Let us see some of the major disasters of zoo history, and we may find an answer to this question...
After centuries of intensive hunting in the wild, the only surviving group of Père David's deer (Elaphurus davidianus) lived in the Nanyuang Royal Hunting Garden in Nan Haizi, near Beijing. The fate of this species demonstrates the situation of the chaotic empire of that age. In 1895 a heavy flood of the Yongding River destroyed one of the walls of the garden and most of the animals escaped. The escape by itself was the minor problem only, but most of the deer have been eaten by starving peasants. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the garden was occupied by troops and the remaining deer were also shot and eaten. It could have easily been the end of the story of this species, but previously some individuals had been exported to Europe illegally – they became the ancestors of all Père David's deer now living in the world. Thus, it was a rare case when animal smuggling actually saved a species from extinction.
2. City under siege
The siege of Budapest (Hungary) was the third longest in World War II after the sieges of the two Russian cities: Leningrad and Stalingrad. Although Leningrad Zoo was demolished and several animals were killed by gunfire, in Budapest the territory of the zoo itself was a real battlefield too, Russian, Romanian, German and Hungarian soldiers fought from house to house, from enclosure to enclosure in it.
The first bomb exploded in the zoo in the morning on 13th December 1944 – it damaged the food storage. Russian soldiers reached the zoo at Christmas, but their advance was stopped there. After very serious fighting the frontline finally moved on on 13th January 1945.
What was left after the battle? The buildings of the zoo were utterly destroyed, most animals died. Many of them were killed by bombs, gunfire and fire. Sziam, the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) died of internal bleeding caused by air pressure of an exploding bomb. Although some zookeepers tried to care for the animals risking their own lives, a lot of animals died of starvation or hypothermia, the crocodiles, for example, froze in their pool. After the siege the starving inhabitants of Budapest raided the zoo killing the remaining animals for food. Finally, only 23 of 2500 animals survived the siege of Budapest.
3. Massacre in Zanesville
Imagine the situation when an owner of a zoo goes mad and decides to release the dangerous animals before committing suicide, and the beasts start to terrorize the peaceful inhabitants. A cheap catastrophe film could begin like this… It actually happened in the United States; however, the end of the story was different: all the animals were slaughtered soon.
Muskingum County Animal Farm was a private zoo in Zanesville (Ohio, USA). The owner, Terry Thomson, a Vietnam veteran, was a strange man, but nobody expected the coming disaster. On 19th October, 2011 he released the animals and finally killed himself. Altogether 56 animals have been set free, including big cats, bears and wolves. 48 animals were killed by local police: 18 tigers (Panthera tigris), 6 black bears (Ursus americanus), 2 grizzlies (Ursus arctos horribilis), 2 grey wolves (Canis lupus), 1 macaque monkey (Macaca sp.), 1 baboon (Papio sp.), 3 cougars (Puma concolor) and 17 lions (Panthera leo). Some animals could be tranquilized and sent to Columbus Zoo. It was a big question what the police could have done instead of shooting the animals – they decided that trying to tranquilize the dangerous animals moving freely was too risky. Nevertheless, the people in the area were suggested to stay at home during the hunt…
4. Flood in Prague
Over a week of continuous heavy rain caused huge floods in several central and eastern European countries from Germany to Romania and Poland in 2002. Dozens of people have been killed, thousands have lost their homes – and one of the largest zoos in Europe, Prague Zoo (Czech Republic) also suffered from it.
The zoo is located near the Vltava River, so the risk of a flood should not be a surprise. However, the flood in 2002 was much larger than any previous one in the history of the zoo. The dramatic days began on 12th August when the evacuation started as the water flooded the kids’ corner and the section of flamingos and birds of prey. The gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) were also in danger in their new pavilion – finally one male, Pong died. The next day saw the water level rise again, so the evacuation continued. The fate of Kádir, the separated male Asian elephant became the symbol of the disaster. The elephant enclosure was completely flooded and Kádir became nervous and aggressive. The zoo employees tried to break the concrete barrier to let the elephant reach the solid ground. However, when Kádir’s trunk and the top of his head were only partially above water level, they euthanized him. A hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) called Lentilka also had to be put down to prevent escape. The female elephants, the rhinos and the gorillas have been saved with mobile cranes. Altogether 400 animals have been evacuated to other Czech zoos. Gaston, the sea lion (Zalophus californianus) escaped from the pool and was later found in the Elbe River in Germany. Unfortunately he was too exhausted and stressed and he died during transport back to Prague. The zoo got a lot of criticism for deciding to kill some of the animals and to transport the exhausted seal instead of waiting for its recovery.
Thanks to the support, Prague Zoo was restored in the following years. Actually the number of visitors has doubled since then.
The experts of Prague Zoo offered their help to another victim of a tragic flood in 2015. The sad story of Tbilisi Zoo (Georgia) got a lot of attention worldwide. The Vere River flooded in Tbilisi on the night of 13th to 14th June 2015, and the zoo suffered the most serious damage. Several animals drowned, many others escaped and were killed later by local police. A tiger (Panthera tigris) killed a man – a case that might support the idea of killing escaped dangerous animals.
Usually, the Vere River is a small stream, but there were several flash floods in the past after heavy rainfalls, for example the zoo was completely flooded in 1972. It happened again in 2015 and this flood was fatal and led to chaos in the capital city. The result was at least 19 deaths, including 3 zoo workers, and several injuries – some of them were caused by animals during attempts to save them. On 17th June a man was mortally wounded by a white tiger near the zoo – the tiger was shot dead by the police.
The zoo lost about half of its animals, more than 300 specimens. Most of them drowned in the flood. Several dangerous animals (hippos, big cats, wolves and hyenas) escaped from their damaged enclosures and cages and started to roam the streets of Tbilisi. Like in Prague, there was a symbolic animal too: a hippopotamus wandered in the city – fortunately, it was successfully tranquilized and returned alive to the zoo. An African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) was found alive 40 km (25 miles) away, at the border of Azerbaijan.
The question of killing the dangerous animals or retaining the possibility of catching them alive was asked again. The zoo posted this on its Facebook page: “We beg, if you see an animal somewhere, don’t kill it!!! Just call us!!!” Some reports on social media claimed that riot police opened fire on animals unnecessarily. A petition was launched demanding that the government investigate whether special forces used weapons against animals without a reason. In addition, the fatal tiger attack happened after the director of the zoo stated there were no more predators outside the zoo – a sign of the chaotic situation.
Conclusion? We cannot prevent disasters, of course; a zoo – unfortunately - cannot stop a war, a flood or an earthquake. However, zoos – especially which are situated in risky areas (for example: next to a river, areas with frequent earthquakes, danger of terrorism, etc.) – should prepare for reducing the risks. In many cases zoo workers saved animals risking their own lives, but the organization of the zoo and disaster management were sometimes not at their best. What we should do with escaping dangerous animals is a very difficult question. It would be better to prevent these controversial situations with planning and practice. As the stories of Tbilisi Zoo and Zanesville Zoo show, a zoo is a potential threat to the population, so these institutes should prepare for any possible crisis situations even in the planning phase – and not only on paper…