Rounding Up Reindeer: Zoo Prepares To Evacuate As Fire Burns Close As the massive Thomas Fire burns in California, the Santa Barbara Zoo's elaborate evacuation plan involves 150 species, tranquilizers and maybe even throwing a towel over an alligator's head.

Rounding Up Reindeer: Zoo Prepares To Evacuate As Fire Burns Close

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The wildfire in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties has forced tens of thousands to evacuate, including the 500 residents of the Santa Barbara Zoo. Among the animals already on the move - endangered California condors, an infant anteater and two visiting reindeer. As Stephanie O'Neill reports, zoo handlers are standing by, ready to evacuate even more animals.


STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Chadwick the African lion enjoys stretching his vocal cords after napping in a spot of warm sunshine that's become a rarity in these often smoke-filled days here at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

KRISTEN WIENERS: Good job, buddy.

O'NEILL: Kristen Wieners is Chadwick's handler. And today she's luring the 19-year-old geriatric cat up to the fence with a reward few lions can resist.

WIENERS: So he's got meat stuffed into tubes. So every time they come over here, we want to reinforce the cats and tell them it's a really good thing to come over.

O'NEILL: A really good thing, especially these days with the threat of wildfire so near. Chadwick and the zoo's leopards, including a breeding pair of Amur leopards, the rarest big cats in the world, must be tranquilized before handlers can load them into big steel evacuation crates. Zoo veterinarian Dr. Julie Barnes says attracting big cats to the cage mesh like Kristen does with Chadwick allows keepers to inject them by hand rather than using a dart gun.

JULIE BARNES: It makes the process very calm, very quick, very low-stress on the animals. And then they just go to sleep within about 10 to 15 minutes.


O'NEILL: Evacuating a zoo takes time, especially when you've got 150 different species to catch and crate. Barnes says you can't wait until the flames are in your backyard. Already, she says, they've come too close for comfort.

BARNES: We moved the condors out first. They're one of our priority species. They're highly endangered. So we moved our condors down to Los Angeles Zoo. We had some other vultures that went with them as well that can be tricky to trap. So once we'd actually got our hands on them, we just decided to move them out as well.

O'NEILL: Handlers led two visiting reindeer into horse trailers. They're heading home for the holidays. An infant anteater who needs round-the-clock bottle feeding is bunking at the Fresno Zoo four hours north. Some of the evacuees in waiting - several fennec foxes, a rambunctious baby gibbon and her foster mother, two gorillas, a team of tamarin and a rather petite Chinese alligator.

How do you evacuate a little Chinese alligator?

BARNES: They usually just throw a towel over her head so that she can't see them, and then they just jump on her.

O'NEILL: It's a different story, however, for the zoo's two 46-year-old Asian elephants. Barnes says they suffer from age-related joint disease. And unlike circus elephants who travel the country, they're not crate-trained.

BARNES: So trying to move them into crates is very stressful for them. In the best interest of the animal and their best chance of survival is to leave them in place and to defend this exhibit in the event that fire was approaching.

O'NEILL: Same goes for the giraffes. Evacuating them is a tall order. They'd require a special truck and a carefully mapped out route because they can't fit under freeway overpasses or under low-hanging powerlines.


O'NEILL: And the zoo's flock of 50 fragile flamingos may also have to stay put, as they're easily injured, and catching them is a bit like herding cats.


O'NEILL: Speaking of which, Chadwick, the elderly lion, has gotten so good at coming to the fence for raw meat treats that zookeepers say they're confident he'll cooperate should the time come to evacuate.


O'NEILL: For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Santa Barbara.


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