Friday, June 20, 2008

Hurricane Preparedness

How do you prepare a 45 acre sanctuary housing 100+ big cats for a Hurricane? Since 2004's episode including 4 major hurricanes in 6 weeks we get asked that question a lot.

The answer isn't something that can be said in a sound byte though, because it takes months of planning, preparing and training to make sure that when the winds quit howling, the cats don't start howling from the wrong side of the fence.

It starts with the caging. Our cages are built from galvanized wire panels that are twice what the state standards require for strength. Vern builds them in rounded, peanut styled formations that utilize the strength of the curvature without the necessity of posts. Because there is nothing to catch the wind, which is the major factor in a hurricane, there is nothing to blow away. Almost all of our Cat-A-Tats (our word for cages) have roofs made of the same material so the animal is safely contained on the top, sides and bottom. The only major damage we have had to cages was in the non roofed enclosures. Anticipating that, we had moved cats living in those enclosures into roofed cages to ride out the storms. By this hurricane season all of our cats have their own "safe area" with a roof and we are raising funds now to roof the remainder of the cages. You can help by donating here: Donate.

The non roofed areas all are equipped with two or three strands of hot wire that is solar powered, because in a hurricane, the first thing to go is the power. The solar units we use are very expensive but are reported to last 5 days in the dark. Fortunately we have never had to test that claim; losing only 3 days of power at any given time. All of our cats have dens to escape the rain. Some of the small cats have igloo type dog houses that are shaped like tree stumps and barrels with one end half cut out up in the trees. Most of the cats have some form of concrete den that is built to accommodate their size. A cougar, for instance, has an underground area (which is actually elevated above the grade to prevent water from pooling inside) that is 8 feet by 12 feet by 2.5 feet high. Over that is a mountain of dirt, plants and grass that provides a cool area in the summer and warmth against the chilling winds in the winter. There isn't a tree big enough to smash one of these 4 inch thick, rebar reinforced, concrete dens that are buried inside our man made hills.

Most of the other places in Florida housing exotic animals reported losing most of their trees during Charly, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne but we only lost a couple of dead pine trees. As we looked around, and thought about why, we concluded that the same thing that kept our cats from blowing away, kept our trees from toppling as well. Most of them are "caged". We build our Cat-A-Tats around trees and Vern very cleverly encloses the top into the center of the boughs so that the cats have lots of opportunities to climb and to do the things they would in the wild, like sleep in the trees all day and wait for night. Because all of our best trees are part of enclosures this way, they were anchored to the ground by 1200 square foot cages. The wind just couldn't get a good enough grip to pull them up from the soggy earth.

All of the damage we did receive was from the dead pine trees and we have called monthly to get our regular tree service out to remove the rest of the dead trees but they have had so much work since last fall that they never could get to us. In June of 2005 we contracted with M & R Tree Service at half the price we were being charged and are taking out 54 pine trees that died from the combination of drought and beetles. This is costing us $300.00 per tree just to drop them and then our staff and volunteers are working, non-stop, to cut up the logs and haul off the branches. This means lots of use for the chainsaws and chippers that were donated last year. One of our Jungle Cat cages didn't survive the tree clearing process as the largest pine on the property landed squarely on top of it.

Hurricane preparedness has a lot to do with our people. Long before the first cloud blows in off the bay they have been rehearsing for the worst possible situation. Thanks to the Volunteer Committee, regular drills are performed, documented and analyzed to see where we have come up short and what we can do to make sure that we are ready in the case of a real emergency such as a loose cat, an injured person or a fire. Jamie is always checking the supplies in the Emergency Response Center and Cathy checks the Cat Hospital supplies on a monthly basis. These crucial supplies are always being checked, rechecked and restocked as they expire. Classes are offered weekly to our members in such things as Animal Emergency, Human CPR and how to find the right tools and the right people in the most effective manner. Everyone knows the chain of command and who has access to dart guns, tranquilizers and the expertise to use them. All of our staff, volunteers and interns carry a two way radio with them at all times and do a radio check upon entering the property to be sure they can hear and be heard.

Our people are taught from day one that they have to lay eyes on every cat they care for and to report anything amiss with the animal and to report any threat to the cage that may compromise its ability to contain its inhabitant. Those observations are all logged in a daily record and Scott, the Operations Manager, double checks the entries and the cause each day. His actions are then logged in his Daily Red Book and reviewed at the weekly staff meetings. All maintenance and preventative maintenance is done immediately. Chris, Honey, a band of Interns and Scott live on site and the perimeter fence is walked throughout the day and night daily to inspect for threats to its integrity. During inclement weather all of these processes are stepped up. Thanks to our involvement with Hillsborough County's Emergency Operations Center we get up to the minute reports on all tropical storms and hurricanes via e-mail, complete with radar photos, tracking projections and information on what is being done across the state to prepare.

The cats are prepared for emergencies as well. Thanks to an awesome Operant Conditioning Program led by Jen, the cats are trained to come into "lockout" on command. This lockout can be detached, with the cat, his water bowl, his feeding tray and enough room to live comfortably for a few weeks if there were a fire, or a breach in the cage that compromised both sections of his Cat-A-Tat. Most of our cages are built in at least two sections so that the cat can be shut into one side or the other for cleaning or repair, but in the worst case scenario we are prepared to move the cat completely and the cat does it all the time, so it isn't so scary for the resident animal. The cats are also trained to come to a target if we need to move them from side to side and while we haven't tried that outside their cage, we are prepared to with our new golf cart gear. Mouse over the golf cart photo for another view.

Golf Cart RenovationDespite all of the best planning, things go wrong. What if a big cat escapes his enclosure? Then what? Oddly, you can drive right up to a big cat and they don't even think twice about it, but the minute you step out of the car, you are lunch or you are to be run from. Neither of those options is conducive to a successful recapture. There are some places on the property that you just can't get to by car but you can access these areas by golf cart. Treats always come on golf carts and so do the Operant Conditioning people, so the cats LOVE golf carts. Vern designed a portable cage that can be dropped down over the frame of a golf cart in a matter of seconds that protects the driver and a "shooter" much like the notion of sending a person in a cage down into a tank of sharks. The golf cart can get within a couple feet of the cat in most cases and lure the cat back to a safe area by way of targeting as we do in Operant Conditioning, or the cat can be darted with a tranquilizer. In the worst case, where escape from the property is eminent, the cat must be shot with a bullet. Our staff has been trained and practices regularly with dart guns, blow pipes, and rifles and shotguns if there is no other alternative. They have been mentally preparing for the day when they may have to shoot one of their "best friends" to keep the cat from being a danger to society, because avoiding an escape is critical to the continuance of the sanctuary for all of the good that we do for the rest of the animals.

Last, but certainly most important, we PRAY!