ZAHP 2021 Virtual Town Hall Series Key Takeaways

In order to promote greater collaboration and communication for preparedness and response within the exotic animal industry, the Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Partnership (ZAHP) hosted a series of Virtual Preparedness Town Halls during summer and fall 2021 focusing on four different geographical quadrants across the United States: Southeast, Southwest, Northeast, and Northwest.

Quadrant calls were led by local experts with assistance from the ZAHP team and included breakout room discussions with local facilities. The ZAHP has put together a summary of some of the most useful tips and pieces of advice from experts who spoke during these town halls. You can review these key takeaways below:

The Basics

  • If you are overwhelmed with the planning process, start with the basics, which are always critical: human and animal food, water, transportation, shelter, and evacuation procedures. Then go from there!
  • Resources are likely to become scarce during major events and disasters. Decide ahead of time what the most effective way to manage resources will be, how to procure stockpiles if necessary, and how your facility will adapt in case of shortages. You should plan ahead to have, at the bare minimum, enough food (for both humans and animals), water, petroleum for vehicles, equipment and tools, and power to last you at least 72-120 hours.
  • Understand how disaster response is organized in the locality of your facility and at the state level. Disasters are typically managed at the most local level. 
  • States will determine through field assessments whether the scope and/or scale of the disaster or event necessitates federal support. FEMA employees working within the state or regional level provide support to states when requested.
  • In the non-disaster times, build capacity where you know there are identified gaps, if possible.
  • Gaps may be revealed by having experienced people review plans as well as current and previous disaster response efforts.
  • Training for various areas of incident response are available from many sources, including ZAHP. Seek out the trainings that are most closely related to your business model and your facility’s associated risks.
  • Consider developing a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), as recovery and returning to business as usual is critical for most facilities. If you have COOP(s), update them with notes on how unexpected events, like the pandemic, may affect operations and tactical response. For example, the practice of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic may make it difficult to evacuate and shelter personnel within public health guidelines.

Natural Disasters and Hazards

  • Make a disaster plan that fits your facility. Knowing the typical risks in the area and how to prepare and respond to them is important. Gain additional knowledge about the unusual, evolving, and cascading disaster events that might impact the local area. Make sure plans are made with family and loved ones prior to events for their safety and protection. Training to the plan is crucial.
  • Wildfires are becoming a more common issue for facilities each year. Understand that stress that wildfires and smoke can induce in exotics, and learn how to maintain your collection even during periods of heavy smoke.
  • Things to consider if you are located in a geographic area where earthquakes may be a potential threat:
    • Some of the direct and indirect impacts or consequences of earthquakes (or other natural disasters) that you should consider include:
      • Structural damage to buildings and infrastructure
        • Loss of structural integrity can lead to animal escape!
      • Animal and human morbidity and mortality
      • Fires
      • Unusual wave action due to tectonic activity (if your facility is located near a body of water)
      • Loss of power
        • Loss of power can lead to a loss of your ability to regulate aquarium pumps, fridges, freezers, and other appliances, as well as the loss of the ability to regulate factors such as light, temperature, oxygen, etc. inside animal exhibits.
        • In the case of a widespread power failure, diesel will be essential for maintaining power at a facility – but diesel will also be in high demand in these kinds of events and will go to hospitals, first responders, etc. first, so have a backup plan!
      • Loss of freshwater supply
      • Damage to saltwater intake
      • Impact on human safety and access
        • Consider: How will responders reach your facility in the event of structural/infrastructure damage within your facility or your geographic area? Will staff members be able to return to their homes, or will they have to shelter in place at your facility until access to highways, bridges, etc. is restored?
      • Loss of income while facility is closed due to damage, reconstruction, etc.
    • Here are some things to consider to prepare your facility for an earthquake:
      • Satellite phones may be useful to have on-hand at your facility in the case that cell towers are out of commission.
      • If possible, build an offsite facility that can store diesel and other critical supplies so that you can access them in case of an emergency.
      • Build saltwater redundancy (or additional saltwater redundancy) for facilities with saltwater exhibits.
      • Prioritize building regional support during non-crisis times.
      • Build up a pool of vehicles to use in case of emergency.
      • Run workshops and drills during non-crisis times to improve staff preparedness. 
    • Steps to Recovery
      • Have a continuity of operations (COOP) plan in place.
      • Build up a resiliency fund to help you maintain operations in times of crisis or closure.
      • Seek out local, state, and federal support and grants.
      • Support facilities in your area – reach out!

Collaboration, Mutual Aid, and Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs)

  • It’s important to be acquainted with local emergency management or representatives with authority over disaster response. State Animal Health Officials (SAHOs), law enforcement and security officials, local political officials, and private collection holders, among others, are all helpful people to develop working relationships with.
  • Update communication networks due to job changes, promotions, retirements, etc. The person who you have on speed dial in the event of an emergency may no longer be in that role!
  • Understand who can provide mutual aid by working and communicating with local emergency management.
  • Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) should be created in advance with realistic tasks, responsibilities, and capacities. It is crucial to renew these annually if you determine that setting one up with partners or NGOs is beneficial to the facility.
  • Talk with other professionals in the sector who have been affected by disasters to learn from their experiences, how they responded, and what they improved to prepare for future impacts.
  • Know capacity, ability to respond, and how to mobilize/demobilize team members before committing to assist another facility in a disaster response. Prepare teams for the possibility of remote working.
  • Understand all liability and insurance issues that may be involved in response.
  • Wildlife rehabilitators or rehabilitation centers may be in the area, and it’s a good idea to include them in planning efforts when possible. They can be an asset and may face similar challenges as your facility in the event of a disaster.
  • Credentialed responders are important and may be required to assist with certain areas in disasters, as there may be some tasks that only they are authorized to undertake. Having trained/exercised staff and/or support personnel is imperative to the immediate success of the response.
  • Having mapping resources available can be a huge benefit for responders. There is a mapping tool located in the Secure Zoo Strategy section of ZAHP’s website at
  • Remember that you will need appropriate permissions prior to deployment to move and transport certain species.

Staff Management in a Disaster or Crisis

  • Communicate ahead of time with people who are most closely tied to the response in your business or facility. Make sure they understand your capabilities, limitations, and needs that are not currently met.
  • Staffing can be a challenge to manage in a disaster or major event. Keep in mind that complications from events such as contagions, toxic fumes and smoke, excessive heat, flooding, and more can exacerbate staffing issues.
  • Prepare staff for mental health challenges in the event of a crisis. If possible, seek critical stress management for responders and support staff as well as other options for personal care during the event. Compassion fatigue and life-ending events can occur during disaster and response events, and it is important for you and your staff to be prepared for these possibilities. It is good practice to be open with teams and prepare them ahead of time; make sure to also follow up after their engagement or deployment.
  • It’s important to have a knowledgeable liaison working with the appropriate public information officer(s) to get the correct information and narrative about the event out or to correct misinformation quickly.


If you would like to watch the Virtual Town Halls, you can access recordings of the informational portions of town halls for each of the quadrants below: