Hurricane Irma tore through Jungle Island with 100 mph gusts and massive rain, ripping apart trees and blocking pathways through the park. But Christopher Gould, managing director of Jungle Island, insists his animal park has had reason to celebrate. All of Jungle Island's 600 animals —which include orangutans, parrots, tigers and snakes, among others — successfully weathered the category 4 storm, he says, although the park itself took heavy damage.
"We’re really excited that the animals in our care came through the storm without more than a little stress," says Gould. "There was no loss of life or injuries — in fact, we even rescued some wild animals."
The same holds true for Zoo Miami in South Dade, where the zoo's spokesperson, Ron Magill, says the park sustained "significant damage" to trees and fencing, but that all the creatures emerged OK.
"The overwhelming majority of our animals are alive and well," Magill writes on Facebook.
Both parks credit a well-detailed preparation plan to saving their animals. Zoo Miami moved thousands of animals to more secure locations before the storm, ensuring that no flamingos had to weather the cane in a bathroom as in the iconic Andrew picture.
Jungle Island, meanwhile, sits on Watson Island, surrounded by Biscayne Bay and at serious risk of flooding. But Gould says Jungle Island had a practice run last year in the run-up to Hurricane Matthew, which looked poise to nail Miami before veering out to sea. Gould says the effort helped prep for Irma. "We knew exactly what to do," he says.
A week before Irma even hit, staff members began moving animals into concrete and steel enclosures based on a schedule meant to minimize the time the creatures spent in the isolated shelters. Many of the storm shelters were directly connected to the animals' original natural enclosures by a sturdy double-door system.
"For our larger animals, like our tigers, lions and orangutans, we want to do whatever we can to avoid additional stress like having to put them under anesthesia," says Gould.
As for the park's winged creatures, staff members moved the park's 200 parrots into the Parrot Bowl Theater, a large amphitheater with 900 seats. He explains: "It's connected to the main administration building, so if any of the parrots had veterinary care issues like needing anti-fungal drugs, we wouldn't need to interrupt their [regimen]," he says.
During the storm, Gould, plus ten veterinarians and animal specialists, stayed on site to attend to Jungle Island's animals. Because of their precautionary measures, the team was even able to rescue animals in the wild. In one case, during a routine health check of the animals, Dr. Jason Chatfield and a couple other staff members noticed a wild green heron lying on its back, trapped in its nest by a toppled tree branch. One of the animal specialists quickly jumped the fence to save the panicked bird and the team brought it back to the park's health clinic, where they discovered it had sustained a compound fracture. Even though they had to do an amputation, they were able to save part of its leg. The bird, says Gould, is at the clinic, recovering from the surgery.
Thankfully, Jungle Island also did not experience any massive power outages, besides losing electricity for a couple minutes. "We have a generator the size of a house, plus backup generators," he says: "It's good, because we have fish in streams and lakes that need filtration and oxygenation."
Gould says the trainers' special relationship with animals helped keep them safe. Ryan Jacobs, the park's tourism director, calmly coaxed Connie, the park's oldest orangutan at 39 years old, into her night-house shelter where she would be safe.
"Our purpose is to take in these misfit animals and look after them for the rest of their lives," says Gould.
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The storm did wreak heavy damage on both parks. "It will be a while before we are back to where we were and are able to open again," Magill says of Zoo Miami, "but I am extremely thankful that this was not another Hurricane Andrew for the zoo. It is bad but it could have been a lot worse."
At Jungle Island, buildings suffered structural damage, the private beach experienced severe erosion (causing the collapse of some retaining walls) and sidewalks were undercut by the surf and storm surge. "It's like we were hit by a small tornado," he says. Even the park's botanical garden lies in ruins, except for two trees—Gould's favorite tree, the ficus religiosa, and an old banyan tree that was one of seven trees on the original site.
"It's too soon to tell when we'll reopen," says Gould, who estimates the best case scenario is one to two months. Regardless, he insists the number one priority is the animals. "We've been lucky," he says.