Zoos to the Rescue! OKC Curator Assists in Post-Hurricane Rebuilding Efforts

I have the best job in the world! Every day, I get to bring people closer to the natural world and help them make connections. One of the reasons I am so lucky is I get to work with some of the best people in the world. Anyone in the zoo field will tell you, we are one big family! As a curator, I look to my fellow zoo family members to help answer questions, share conservation successes and partner together to ensure the best experiences for our animals and guests. Just like family, we also support each other in hard times. So when the hurricanes took aim at several Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions, we were all ready to support our fellow facilities with whatever they needed. This is how I found myself traveling to the Naples Zoo as part of a five zoo partnership to get them back on their feet. 

The Naples Zoo was one of several AZA institutions affected by Hurricane Irma. It is located on the west coast of Florida close to where the hurricane made landfall. When the storm passed, it was revealed that the small zoo had been heavily damaged. Once communication was restored to the area, a recovery team consisting of Oklahoma City Zoo, Kansas City Zoo, Sedgwick County Zoo, St. Louis Zoo and Topeka Zoo reached out to coordinate a recovery effort. The most frustrating part of the effort was the time it took to be able to get into Naples. The entire area was without power and water for weeks. During this time, it was nearly impossible to physically get into the area.  In the meantime, we gathered supplies that would be needed to repair and rebuild. As soon as it was safe, 11 of us made the journey and saw firsthand what our zoo family had been through. 

We arrived to the welcome of dirt-strewn employees with huge smiles and got right to work. To say trees were everywhere was an understatement! The Naples Zoo was known for its botanical gardens, including two nearly century-old specimens planted by the founder that were lost in the storm. We split into groups to maximize the six days we were there. Half of us focused on the cleanup---removing trees, branches, destroyed fences and roofs. The other half focused on the rebuild---new fences, habitat reinforcement, and even constructing new buildings. While we encountered hindrances to our efforts, including heat and even more rain, we also had a lot of successes! Due to safety concerns, some of the zoo residents had been unable to go into outdoor yards since the storm had hit. Seeing the animals enjoy their newly repaired habitats made everything worth it. At the end of the six days, we had the zoo well on its way to a planned reopening of early October. We also made some lifelong friends in the Naples staff.

Why did I make this journey? Having lived in storm prone areas, I understand what they were dealing with. These folks had been working for several weeks straight at this point. They had no running water at their own homes and yet they were at the zoo cleaning up debris, rebuilding habitats and caring for the animals. When we chose a career in the zoo field, we all share a passion and a commitment not just to our zoo inhabitants but to all animals. None of us know what the future holds. Wildfires, hurricanes, and tornados are completely unpredictable. No matter what comes next, we are a family and we will face it together.

Kimberly Leser, curator of behavioral husbandry and welfare

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