Zoological Disaster Response, Rescue, and Recovery (ZDR3): A Specialized Disaster Network

Cover photo: Staff from San Antonio Zoo pose in front of debris. Photo: ZDR3

By Mandy Matson

A zoological facility navigating the aftermath of a devastating incident—such as a fire, severe storm damage, or flooding—is a unique entity requiring equally unique disaster response skills. Zoological Disaster Response, Rescue, and Recovery (ZDR3) is the only response organization dedicated to zoological species in the United States, and specifically focuses on supporting these facilities before, during, and after significant events. 

ZDR3 Response Teams are made up of Network Members who can help to clear debris after severe storms, as seen above.  These Members’ hard work expedites the recovery process for affected facilities and allows them to assume normal operations much more quickly. In these unique response scenarios, utilizing teams with prior experience and training in working safely around exotic animals —and can work under their employers’ liability insurance—is a huge benefit.

“Our industry participants care deeply for the animals they are responsible for. During and after an adverse event, it is typical to see people sacrificing their own welfare to ensure the animals in their care are protected,” says ZDR3’s Executive Director, Julia Wagner. “By bringing in outside support to these impacted facilities, we are able to lessen the adverse impact to the personnel, which is critical for the recovery process of an institution and its individuals—human and animal.” 

As the largest response organization dedicated to exotic species, ZDR3’s network is composed of various Network Members who have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with ZDR3. ZDR3 is an inclusive network that partners with all kinds of industry business models, including zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries, outreach educators, and conservation breeding centers representing a variety of accreditation statuses and membership groups. 

Network Members are never obligated to respond to any incident, and becoming an MOU holder provides facilities with access to ZDR3 resources, support, and contacts. Because the ZDR3 Response Network is strictly limited to professional response personnel, facilities requiring assistance can rest assured that responders are trained and experienced in working with and around exotic animals. 

ZDR3 Network Members are trained to address a wide range of needs, including animal evacuations, clearing downed trees and other debris, assisting in emergency facility repairs, documenting response activities, supporting a facility’s communications team, and providing referrals to critical incident stress management specialists. 

Invaluable Peer-to-Peer Support 


Zoo staff and responders help evacuate animals from a flooded zoo. Although this response took place before ZDR3 was officially established, several team members involved in this event went on to create the regional response organization that would eventually become ZDR3. Photo: Victoria Advocate

During the highly active 2017 Atlantic storm season, which included Hurricane Harvey, several zoos and aquariums in the southeastern United States were heavily flooded and damaged by downed trees. Fortunately, industry colleagues stepped up to assist them. Network Members from zoos involved in this peer-to-peer support network realized that they needed a more formalized system of aiding each other. They launched ZDR3 in 2019 with an initial goal of creating an industry-led network to assist regional facilities damaged by major Atlantic storms. 

The value of creating the network and working so closely together quickly became apparent. In 2020, the U.S. experienced a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season; over the course of 19 days, 37 ZDR3 network responders from eight participating facilities deployed to provide aid to three impacted zoos in Alabama and Louisiana. Those efforts led to increased interest in ZDR3 from zoos and aquariums across the country, so ZDR3 expanded beyond its original region to include all who want to participate. 

Today, ZDR3 has more than 100 member facilities across 26 states and continues to grow. 

Stronger Together 

Most of ZDR3’s network facilities are located in hurricane-prone areas. As severe storms become more frequent and intense, facilities sometimes find themselves unable to provide mutual aid to their closest neighbors since they may be inundated with their own recovery and response efforts. ZDR3 recently strengthened its network by partnering with non-coastal facilities that are less likely to be affected by severe storms—and eager to help impacted colleagues weather a disaster. 

To prepare to assist Network Members, ZDR3 personnel track incoming Atlantic storm systems by superimposing storm information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over a map of more than a thousand businesses and institutions that house exotic animals. 

“We begin mapping a storm when it is named and appears to be forming into a potential threat, and continue mapping until we fully understand the storm’s impact,” Wagner explains. “In addition to identifying potentially impacted facilities, these maps assist with other considerations, such as identifying the routes responders will need to travel to avoid storm impact; which network members may be affected by lesser impacts of the storm; and determining which members of the ZDR3 network may be best equipped to respond to their colleagues in need.”

ZDR3 provides network members with a 24-hour emergency line, manned by trained professionals, to be used when a situation may exceed or already has exceeded a zoological facility’s internal emergency response capabilities. Network members can use this number to connect with ZDR3 Command, who can determine what kind of specialized assistance is required based on such factors as proximity, capacity, and available equipment.

The emergency number is available exclusively to facilities that have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with ZDR3. You can learn more about the network and download the MOU here. There is no cost to join ZDR3, and network members are not obligated to assist in a response. 

“ZDR3 is ready to assist impacted facilities before, during, and after significant incidents—including those that are not weather-related,” says Michael Fouraker, founding President of ZDR3 and Director of Fort Worth Zoo. “I encourage you to join us. As a community of zoos and aquariums, we are stronger together.” 

You can learn more at or contact [email protected] with any questions.

Mandy Matson is a Communications Volunteer for ZDR3.