The zoo focuses on providing quality welfare for the animal residents and engaging educational experiences for our guests. We also focus on safety for all — animals, guests and community, and staff. We continue to challenge ourselves in this area by doing at least four emergency drills each year.
Minimally our yearly drills must cover guest or staff injury, fire, weather/natural disaster, and animal escape. Drills may be based on past true events, here or elsewhere, or be based solely on what could happen (imagination is a wonderful thing). They can be simple, like a power outage from a snow storm or a fire from a lightning strike or errant cigarette, or more involved. We did one where a keeper backed a truck into the hay barn then climbed the stack of bales to throw some down and load into the truck. The keeper had backed too close to the haystack and the hot exhaust pipe started a fire (remember, imagination at work, this is a drill). Upon seeing the fire, the keeper climbed down the stack to get an extinguisher to put it out but had a misstep and fell hitting their head and losing consciousness. Another keeper saw the smoke and looked into the barn while driving by. Distracted by the fire they drove into the corner of the lion habitat, unintentionally letting the lion escape. While this involved fire, injury, and an animal escape, this was just one drill. We still had three others that year.
Speaking of involved, our drills may involve other City departments or agencies depending on the topic. We’ve been lucky enough to work with the Fire Department, EMS, Dispatch/911, Police Department, Sheriff’s Department, and Kansas Department of Agriculture, and of course our guests during various drills over the years.
During real emergency situations zoo staff or trained zoo volunteers would direct our guests to areas of safety. For a drill, staff inform guests of the situation and what they’d be asked to do if it was a real emergency. After that they are wished an enjoyable time at the zoo as they continue their visit. While we try not to lessen our guests access to the zoo during these exercises, there are times an area is blocked off during a drill, just as we would if the situation was real. These drills aren’t tabletop exercises, discussion only, although we may have some of those during the year also. These are “live action” drills. Staff are out there doing what they’d do. Checking for and finding guests to keep them safe is a big part of the response. If fire extinguishers or nets are needed, staff arrive with fire extinguishers or nets. Don’t worry though, we have stand ins play the roles of any escaped animals. It may be a staff person running around with a “I’m an escaped otter” sign or a paper mache red panda or leopard hiding in a tree. We try to cover all the bases during our emergency exercises. What we don’t address one year, we’ll be sure to get during another.
So if you see a staff person with an “I’m an escaped otter” sign or driving a gator with cardboard horns attached to represent a rhino, banteng, or bison, or happen to stumble upon a paper mache creature of one sort or another tucked up in a tree or in a bunch of grass or cane, you can expect to find other staff nearby on the lookout. You can also expect to receive instructions on how you can stay safe no matter the topic of the exercise. Our goal, as always, is to provide a safe enjoyable experience for those who visit and quality welfare for the residents.
Kristi Newland is the director of Lee Richardson Zoo.