Chadwick the African Lion gets up slowly from a late morning nap in a spot of warm sunshine that’s become somewhat of a rarity in these often smoke-filled days here at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
“He’s a very majestic older lion,” Dr. Julie Barnes, director of Animal Care and Health at the Santa Barbara Zoo tells a visitor. “He’s 19-years old so he is definitely geriatric at this time. But he is very beloved here by the people who work at the zoo and by our visitors.”
The thick-maned lion is among the 500 residents of the zoo are part of an elaborate effort to prepare for evacuation should the flames from the massive Thomas Fire get close to the zoo. That plan involves about 150 species — from gorillas and otters to an alligator and tamarins — and lots of tranquilizers, crates and donated trucks.
The fire has already neared the zoo once since it began on December 4. After that scare some animals, including two visiting reindeer endangered condors, and an infant anteater, were already moved.
Others — including an elderly pair of elephants who are not crate trained, and giraffes who would not fit under freeway underpasses — would have to remain at the zoo if others left.
“Good job, buddy,” Chadwick’s handler Kristen Wieners says as she lures the big cat up to the fence with a toot of a training whistle and the promise of a meaty reward.
Chadwick shakes off the sleep and slowly approaches the fence.
“This is how a 19-year-old lion moves,” she says as she hands him a reward of raw meat stuffed into a cardboard paper towel tube. The lion grabs it and chews it between his giant paws, like a dog gnawing raw hide.
The cardboard tube acts like “an extra source of fiber,” in Chadwick’s diet, says Wieners: “Every time they come over (to the fence) we want reinforce the cats and tell them it’s a really good thing to come over.”
That’s especially true 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 sturdy steel evacuation crates lined up along the back side of the zoo.
Barnes says attracting big cats to the cage mesh allows keepers to inject them by hand rather than by dart gun.
“It makes the process very calm, very quick,” Barnes says. “Very low stress on the animals and then they just go to sleep, within about 10 to 15 minutes.”
And it’s that kind of efficiency needed for a successful evacuation, especially at a zoo like this with about 150 different species that would need capturing before they can be crated-up and carted to safety.
Barnes says the zoo is now on evacuation standby as you can’t wait until the flames are in your backyard to prepare for something like this. Already during this wildfire, she says, they’ve come too close for comfort. That happened last Saturday.
“So we moved our condors down to the Los Angeles Zoo,” she says. They’re one of our priority species – they’re highly endangered.”
And along for the ride were a few other vultures who Barnes says can be “tricky to trap.”
“So once we actually got our hands on them we just decided to move them out as well,” she says.
Handlers also led two visiting reindeer – Lightning and Holiday – into horse trailers. They’re now heading home for the holidays. An infant ant eater who needs round-the-clock bottle feeding is now bunking at the Fresno Zoo, about four hours north of here.
Among the evacuees still in-waiting are: several fennec foxes; a rambunctious baby gibbon and her foster mother, two silverback Western lowland gorillas, Asian small-clawed otters, golden lion tamarins and a rather petite Chinese alligator who, it turns out, is pretty easy to capture.
“They usually just throw a towel over her head so she can’t see them and they just jump on her,” Barnes says.
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 routinely travel the country, these elderly pachyderms are not crate-trained.
“To move them into crates is very stressful for them,” Barnes says.
Their best chance of survival, she says, is to leave them in place. Their exhibit includes concrete housing that would provide protection. What’s more, she says, firefighters, have staged vehicles around the zoo to defend it, if necessary.
Same goes for the zoo’s five giraffes. Evacuating them is a tall order, requiring a special truck and a carefully mapped out getaway route as giraffes can’t fit under freeway overpasses or under low-hanging power lines.
And, Barnes says, the zoo’s flock of 50 fragile flamingos, would also probably stay put as they’re easily injured and catching them can be a bit like herding cats.
Until the fire threat is over, Barnes says, she’s keeping most of the hard-to-catch animals in their night-time holding pens for easy evacuation.
Chadwick, on the other hand, is among the few easy-to-roundup zoo residents, so he remains free to roam his outdoor exhibit – much to the pleasure of zoo visitors.