Aquarium Animals Evacuate New Orleans; Zoo Gets Relief

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 9, 2005
The evacuation of New Orleans is continuing today, but this time the
evacuees include some very lucky marine animals that weathered Katrina's
fury at the city's Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.

The aquarium, widely considered one of the best in the United States, escaped serious damage at its location on Canal Street near the Mississippi River.

"But they lost a good part of the collection because the fuel and generators that run the life-support system gave out," said Jane Ballentine, spokesperson for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA).

Most of the aquarium's 6,000 aquatic animals perished.

Thanks to a dedicated staff, however, some animals survived. Among the fortunate: sea otters, penguins, macaws and raptors, leafy and weedy sea dragons, some fishes, and a green sea turtle named Midas.

Today, museum officials invited the press to watch as the surviving animals began journeys to their new homes at institutions in Monterey, California, and Dallas, Galveston, and Houston, Texas. They are to remain in their "foster homes" until the Aquarium of the Americas can reopen.

Eight large tarpon fish will stay in the New Orleans aquarium's Gulf of Mexico exhibit, now that power has been restored. Several macaws and raptors, as well as two sea lions from New Orleans's Audubon Zoo, arrived at the Houston Zoo on Thursday, according to the latest updates supplied by the AZA.

In addition, five sea turtles have already been released into the Gulf of Mexico, Audubon Nature Institute President Ron Forman wrote in an open letter posted on the institute's Web site today.

Aquarium staff remained at their posts throughout the storm, as well as the subsequent flooding, doing what they could for the animals in their charge.

"Some of our staff were uncertain about the fate of their family members and homes, but continued to work to protect our animals," Forman reported.

Forman himself refueled the generator that powered life-support systems during the storm.

But power eventually failed, and aquarium workers were driven from the facility by violence in the nearby business and tourist districts.

In the absence of trained personnel, local police officers were pressed into penguin-feeding duty. "Even when our staff had to be evacuated out for our own safety, the police officers were able to stay back and get food to those animals and keep a good number of them alive," aquarium spokesperson Melissa Lee told CNN this afternoon.

When employees were able to return, the awful toll was clear, but they were cheered by the hardy survivors who today moved on to their new homes.

Zoo Staff "Stayed Because Animals Couldn't Leave"

New Orleans's Audubon Zoo, which like the aquarium is owned by the Audubon Nature Institute, fared much better.

The zoo is on relatively high ground in the Uptown neighborhood and escaped the destructive flooding seen in other parts of town.

"That was a godsend for the staff and for the animals," said the AZA's Ballentine, who has been in regular contact with staffers at both the zoo and aquarium.

Zoo curator Dan Maloney told reporters that, of the facility's 1,400 animals, only two otters and a raccoon died in the storm.

Maloney also said that the zoo had been planning for such a catastrophe for years, salting away provisions for humans and animals alike.

"We're on our own here, and we know we're on our own," Maloney told Reuters news service. "We tried to plan for what's impossible to plan for."

Officials had reinforced the concrete structures where many animals dwell. Such precautions enabled staffers to wait out the storm's worst at what they came to call "Camp Katrina."

"We holed up in the reptile house," Maloney told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Fourteen zoo staffers braved the worst of Katrina to stay at their posts and care for the animals.

As of yesterday afternoon, the AZA reported that fresh supplies were finally reaching the beleaguered zoo crew, including fuel and food for people and animals alike.

Zoo staff "were looking for changes of clothing and sleeping bags for the folks who stayed," AZA's Ballentine said. "They are really ragged, but they are in very good spirits. They are doing OK."

A fresh shift of workers has recently relieved the zoo's main hurricane team.

Though New Orleans residents have been ordered to evacuate, Ballentine said she expects the zoo staff to stay on site with their animal charges.

"They have a responsibility to care for the animals, and they don't want to give that up," she said. "I'd guess that they will work with authorities to find a way to remain at the zoo and care for the animals."

New Orleans also houses the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species. AZA reports indicate that all of that facility's animals are doing well, though one very pregnant endangered cat was removed to the Saint Louis Zoo for delivery.

Zoos Worldwide Offer Assistance

The AZA has launched a national fund-raising initiative and is garnering support from member institutions.

"We're trying to be the coordinator of supplies," Ballentine said, "from generators to veterinary medicine."

The organization is also establishing a zoo-employee job bank and arranging temporary housing for both employees and animals.

"We're not trying to take away from the efforts of the Red Cross or other humanitarian organizations," she said. "But the staff and families find themselves in the same position as others. And there's a need to get the right supplies to the animals—that's a specialized need that we can help to fill."

Kevin Bell, President and CEO of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, is spearheading the fund-raising effort.

"The response has been absolutely phenomenal," he said. "I do a lot of fund-raising for the [Lincoln Park Zoo] but in this case I don't need to do anything except answer my phone and respond to e-mail. People are doing this on their own. It's been very gratifying to see support coming from every corner of the world.

"I've had people send me their resumes from California and say, I'm a retired zoo employee, and I'd love to go down there and help. Just tell me where to go and I'll go for nothing," Bell said.

Those without zoo expertise but with a desire to help can contribute to the relief fund at the Lincoln Park Zoo Web site, Bell said.

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