California is currently suffering through the most devastating and deadly wildfire in its history. The death toll has reached 58, hundreds of people are missing and thousands of people have lost their homes. But it’s not just humans that are experiencing death and displacement. What is happening to the animals caught up in this nightmare?
Zoo action plans
Luckily, zoos have safety measures in place for a wide range of events. For example, last Friday a brush fire broke out in Griffith Park, near Los Angeles Zoo, prompting the zoo to close and start preparing its animals for evacuation.
While firefighters tackled the blaze and eventually managed to get it under control in just a few hours, the zoo had already moved some of its smaller primates like lemurs, and its show birds to inside enclosures to escape the smoke.
Several people reportedly came forward to offer assistance in moving and even housing the animals (we bet they did).
By the next day, the fire was at 60 percent containment and the animals had been returned to their enclosures. The zoo assured everyone that none of its animals (or staff) were harmed and everyone was doing well.
A safari park in Malibu, however, has been berated for what appeared to be a half-hearted evacuation attempt of the devastating Woolsey Fire that left its famous giraffe Stanley alone in a fenced off area next to half-burned buildings.
In its defense, Malibu Wines Safari Park claimed that its fire protocol was to lead its animals into the large fenced enclosure whose purposely barren environment doesn’t burn easily. In doing so it lost no animals, despite losing 95 percent of its buildings.
“Exotic animals cannot simply be haltered and moved into a trailer and off the property. The majority of them require anesthesia and major lifting capability to move them,” the park said in a statement. “It would take weeks to move a collection of that size and animal type. The staff did an amazing job in a very short period of time to accomplish this feat."
What happens to wildlife?
Unfortunately, it's not that easy for wildlife, and reports have been filled with heartbreaking images of animals that either couldn’t outrun the fires – which were exacerbated by incredibly strong winds – or died from the smoke. Hundreds of thousands more will be displaced, their habitats destroyed.
However, many Californian ecosystems rely on wildfires, and the local wildlife will have evolved a variety of tactics to deal with them. The obvious is, if you have feathers, fly away. If you don't have feathers, going underground is a good bet. The temperatures above ground may be around 800°C (1,472°F), but just a couple of inches under the surface it will be much cooler, and many small species, such as squirrels, lizards, and chipmunks will be seeking solace there.
For the bigger animals, it is a case of fleeing, and that is where the casualties will most likely lie.
Researchers and rangers at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which is also currently partly blazing with the Woolsey Fire, are using this opportunity to study how large wild animals, like mountain lions, respond to wildfires.
“It’s become this unplanned experiment about what happens when you have an isolated protected area, and half of the habitat is eliminated by a fire,” Seth Riley, Chief of Wildlife for the Recreation Area, told Atlas Obscura. “This fire will provide a huge opportunity to see what various wildlife communities do in these extreme conditions.”
What about man's best friend?
It may be tempting to round up and rescue as many wild animals as you can, but experts suggest people don't put themselves in unnecessary danger, and let nature take its course. It's our furry, four-legged friends (of all varieties) that have mostly needed rescuing – although any fire department will tell you if it comes down to it, don't put yourself in danger to save a pet either (we know, we'd struggle with this too).
Incredible photos have emerged of horses, goats, and even alpacas evacuated to Zuma beach in Malibu last week as officials opened up the shoreline and local parking lot as an evacuation zone for large animals.
In fact, many farms and ranches made for the beach as major roads started shutting down. Sadly, some evacuation notices were so urgent many people had to leave immediately and have yet to be able to return and find their pets. On the other hand, many people have rescued or are housing animals that don't belong to them and hundreds of groups and hashtags on social media have been set up to reunite pet and owner.
Many rescue centers have reached full capacity, but local animal services are still providing as much shelter as possible and advising everyone to make sure they have any chip numbers and identification ready to speed up the collection process to allow room for more animals. Meanwhile, vets have been treating the wounded and performing surgery around the clock.
Amongst the chaos and destruction, there are heartwarming stories of unlikely rescues too, like the man who rescued a horse he came across that had become stuck in a swimming pool, or the guy who drove 145 kilometers (90 miles) to rescue his friends' donkey, puppy, goats, and cat, and actually came away with 17 animals. The message here for pet owners is don't give up.