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Cheyenne Mountain Zoo practices plan to keep hundreds of animals safe in a wildfire

November 9, 2017 Updated: November 9, 2017 at 10:30 pm
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photo - The giraffes at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo are just one of many animals that enjoy the surroundings of Africa at the zoo's African Rift Valley. (Gazette file photo)
The giraffes at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo are just one of many animals that enjoy the surroundings of Africa at the zoo's African Rift Valley. (Gazette file photo) 

About 750 animals - from insects to elephants to black-footed ferrets - would be at risk if a wildfire consumed Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

But the zoo has a plan.

An hourslong, full-scale fire drill Thursday afternoon allowed staff to prepare for "a 1,000-acre fire started just southwest of us - about 10 miles - and high winds," said Bob Chastain, the zoo's president and CEO. Though this week has been humid and chilly in Colorado Springs, fire is a year-round threat, he said.

"We're not going to be moving all of our animals off-site," Chastain said. Many can't be moved off zoo property without the help of a specialty shipper, he said, and some are "very social," making it difficult for them to be moved out of their social groups.

"Most of our plan has us moving all of our animals down to four buildings," he said. "We have four buildings at the bottom of the zoo that are easily protected, that are made out of fireproof materials."

Each evacuation destination - the zoo's primate, elephant and rhino, giraffe and lion habitats - has a list of animals that would be housed there.

"We have a building that is two-thirds the size of a football field, and we only have six elephants and a rhino in there," Chastain said. "They have lots of space during their day-to-day life. We would move other animals down there, and obviously it would become a little bit of an ark and it would get a little bit more crowded."

The unique, mountainside zoo west of The Broadmoor hotel is in terrain similar to the destructive Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, that started in the foothills and swept downslope into the city, burning entire neighborhoods.

During the evacuation drill, Jeff Baughman, a field conservation coordinator, gathered the zoo's 22 black-footed ferrets. He used meat to get them into their nest boxes, then loaded empty crates into a van to simulate bringing them across the zoo. It took him and one other staff member a little less than 40 minutes.

"They all cooperated really well today," Baughman said. That might not be the case if there's a true emergency, though.

"This species is a priority for us here at the zoo," he said. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is one of five in the country that breeds black-footed ferrets, which are among the most endangered mammals in North America and were on the brink of extinction in the 1980s, when less than 20 remained.

"If a fire did come through, we'd lose a whole facility, so there'd only be four left if we didn't ensure that this population was safe."

The plan allows for about two to three hours to save the animals, Chastain said.

"The longer we have, the more animals that we might begin to make different decisions on, and continue to move them to safer and safer and safer positions along the way," he said. "Our plans accounts for all of our animals living through even the most severe wildland fires."

After the fire evacuation drill, the zoo held a power outage drill - "assuming that the fire has caused an outage in our electricity" - overnight Thursday, using generators and other equipment to keep the animals warm, Chastain said.

In addition to the animals, staff and visitors must be kept safe, he said. Humans would shelter in place in the zoo's commissary, where animals' food typically is prepared.

"Human safety is our number-one priority, both the safety of our guests and the safety of our staff," Chastain said. The zoo was closed early at 2 p.m., and some guests were evacuated. "If Colorado Springs Fire Department put us on pre-evacuation, we'd get as many staff here as we could, move as many animals as we could, and then when evacuation came down, we would keep a small shelter-in-place team on grounds until the fire was resolved."

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Contact Ellie Mulder: 636-0198

Twitter: @lemarie

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