What Happens To Animals During Hurricane Florence? How A South Carolina Zoo is Protecting its Animals

Staff at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, South Carolina, hugged 40 flamingos to their chests and whispered words of reassurance to their pink pals as they paraded them toward temporary shelter Thursday afternoon. The flamingos rode golf carts away from their outdoor homes to safer grounds in preparation for Hurricane Florence, expected to make landfall along the Eastern Seaboard by early Friday.

In total, the zoo will bring about 150 birds to indoor shelters before Friday. The process has been slow and steady—with crew members working since Monday to evaluate each enclosure and minimize any risk due to relocation.

On Thursday evening, zookeepers will bring two African elephants, eight giraffes, three adult African lions and three cubs inside to safe, concrete pens reinforced with metal to keep the animals and everyone else safe during the storm. In total, 2,000 species will spend the weekend indoors awaiting the storm's end.

More than 420,000 people have evacuated their homes in South Carolina, but at the state's zoos and nature preserves, animals need a little extra help staying safe.

Storm preparations began back in May at Riverbanks. That's when John Davis, director of animal care and welfare, began a series of site inspections to identify "low-hanging fruit" like clutter that had to be cleared out and repairs that needed to be made before hurricane season hit. He took photos of the grounds and met with department heads to go over emergency plans. "We always want the staff communicating about and aware of hurricane protocol," he told Newsweek.

Last Saturday, he began preparing for Florence in earnest.

"We started ordering supplies and evaluating our equipment," he explained. "We made sure our chainsaws were in good condition, that we had fuel storage on site. We also significantly bumped up our fish and animal food orders."

The zoo brought in two refrigerated 18-wheeler trucks to house extra animal food and ordered a series of generators to ensure penguin habitats maintain appropriate temperatures and that fish tanks continue to be aerated and filtered. The zoo also rented a backhoe to quickly clear away any fallen trees.

Most of the zoo staff were ordered to stay home during the storm to avoid hazardous road conditions. "Zookeepers are dedicated people who will drive through anything to help the animals," explained Davis. A barebone staff of 10-12 will spend the weekend at the zoo in makeshift housing to watch over the animals.

Davis, meanwhile, is monitoring how area zoos are doing through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums network. If a nearby zoo is overwhelmed by the storm, Davis said he is ready to rescue and house some of their animals, which he did during Hurricane Irma in Florida.

"We've made a lot of progress here and we're looking out for these animals in the storm," Davis added. He does, however, worry about zoos that aren't quite as prepared and don't belong to his network. "I worry about those animals, I don't know those procedures," he explained. "I hope and wish them well."