Flood + Zoo = Disaster. Why Weren’t They Prepared For This?

Earlier this month, Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, experienced a major flash food. The flood was tragic and took many lives. What sets this natural disaster apart from others, however, is that the flood also hit Tbilisi's zoo. The zoo did not have a plan for natural disasters and the results were catastrophic…

An escaped bear seeks safety on the window ledge of a Tbilisi apartment.
An escaped bear seeks safety on the window ledge of a Tbilisi apartment.

The first shocking fact about the flood is that it was the River Vere that flooded, not the River Mtkvari, Tbilisi's main water source. A heavy storm hovered over the city dumping most of its rain into the River Vere and causing a massive overflow. Water flooded the streets and washed away cars, destroyed buildings, and damaged the enclosures at the Tbilisi zoo. The animals in the zoo were either trapped in their enclosures or they survived by escaping the zoo and swimming into the city amidst the detritus and debris that littered the streets.

The zoo was home to around 600 animals and about 30 of them actually escaped. Among them were wolves, penguins, bears, hippopotami, and a tiger who ended up killing a relief worker.

The man that was killed was with a companion in an abandoned factory when they stumbled across the escaped white tiger. The tiger mauled the one man, dealing a fatal blow as they rushed to escape. Georgian special forces tracked the tiger down and “liquidated” it because they had no tranquilizers on hand. The killing of this animal, however, seems to be based more on lack of planning than any sort of malice for the creature.

Among the other escaped animals was a hippopotamus who received a far gentler fate than the tiger. The hippo was spotted wandering the downtown across a dual carriageway. It was eventually tranquilized with a dart, which allowed volunteers to help escort the hippo out of harm's way. The footage of this large and majestic animal is bizarre as it's seen traipsing through the streets of Tbilisi, guided by a group of humans who are eager to help the hippo home.

Another remarkable survivor of the flood was a penguin who made its way all the way to the Georgian border of Azerbaijan! The penguin swam nearly 30 miles before it was found! This was the 10th penguin found of the zoo's 17 penguins. It was found on the Azeri border where it attracted the attention of pedestrians. Police were able to safely capture it with a dragnet and transport it back to Tbilisi.

But could this absurd animal escape been prevented?

The answer is yes. The role of zoos in contemporary society is complicated. They are set up to teach us about animals that aren't native to our countries. They also help to protect endangered species from going extinct. But one could also make the criticism that they capture animals and turn them into spectacles.

If it's the job of a zoo to protect animals, then there should have been a plan in place for this natural disaster. In 2013, the USDA passed federal regulations that require zoos in the U.S. to come up with contingency plans to prepare for such events. The document states (in section 2.38) that zoos must:

“follow an appropriate plan to provide for the humane handling, treatment, transportation, housing, and care of their animals in the event of an emergency or disaster.” 

The document goes on to outline how zoos and other animal-handling institutions should react to unexpected emergencies, such as food shortages, power outages, and escaped animals. The USDA gave institutions until July 29th, 2013 to come up with their contingency plans and an additional two months to train their staff. But this only affected American zoos. This doesn't affect the zoos of Europe, Asia, or in this case, the Middle East.

Unfortunately for the animals of the Tbilisi zoo, no such plan existed. It's true that the flood happened fast and seemingly came out of nowhere, but if the zoo had been prepared for this type of emergency, the local police would have been trained in humanely capturing animals; they would've had tranquilizer guns instead of rifles; the trapped animals might have had a dry place to stay safe; volunteers would have been trained by professionals in how to safely help the animals return to home. Many animals survived the ordeal, but many did not. If Tbilisi had been prepared, they might've saved the lives of both humans and animals alike from the chaos following the recent storm. The flood took the lives of 19 humans and over 300 animals.

How many lives could have been saved had Tbilisi been prepared?

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