By Karen Chen
8:58 PM CDT, August 21, 2013
As a zoo CEO drives to work, a radio news reportannounces that dead birds were found in a park near the zoo.
In this hypothetical scenario involving the Lincoln Park Zoo, the CEO arrives at the office to find a flurry of voice mails from reporters. But before there is a chance to respond, the phone rings: The H5N1 virus has been confirmed as the cause of death. It is not yet known if the bird flu strain can spread to humans.
But there's no panic. The zoo's general curator, Dave Bernier, knows exactly whom to call and what to tell them. His confidence was reflected in the hypothetical disaster scenario that accredited zoos used to practice reacting to an imagined avian flu outbreak.
From Tuesday through Thursday, eight zoos and aquariums in Illinois are participating in the Zoo Animal Health Network exercise on communication during emergencies, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state and other agencies.
Emergency responders use a standardized protocol that zoos need to be fluent in, in order to communicate their needs, because the last thing anyone wants is for rare and endangered species to be needlessly put down, said Yvonne Nadler, a zoo employee and lead facilitator of the exercise.
"It's like going to France and insisting they speak English," said Nadler, who calls herself the "head cat-herder." "We don't need to be masters (of the protocol), but if we know the basics and can say things like 'please' and 'thank you' in their language, it can go a long way when you're dealing with all these agencies."
With more extreme weather and the threat a disease outbreak or even terrorist attacks, the program prepares zoos to work with the government to create the best solution for zoo animals and staff.
Natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes have tested zoos in recent years, and globalization has led to an increased risk of disease outbreaks like West Nile virus and avian flu. Zoos have responded well, but situations like that are increasing, Nadler said, and while Chicago is not prone to hurricanes, it does have snowstorms, like 2011's "Snowpocalypse." Zoos are already required to have plans in place, but learning to translate them into the government's uniform language prevents the zoo's animal expertise from being ignored.
"If there's a public crisis, we know we're not the top priority in Illinois, but we don't want to be forgotten," Bernier said.
Bernier, who has worked at Lincoln Park Zoo for 24 years, participated in the hypothetical scenario over the Internet. The exercise was predominantly funded by the USDA through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's veterinary college. It parcels out a disaster over various stages, one of which involves an imaginary employee leaking sensitive information on a personal Facebook page.
Participants post their responses on the online forum, and state and federal agencies observe or interact by answering questions and offering advice.
The planning team, which includes Nadler, also helps with clarifications. The exercise culminates in a conference call during which responses are broken down and participants suggest improvements for future exercises. Other states have expressed an interest in using the exercise to test their own plans and possibly write new scenarios.
In the event of an avian flu scare, Bernier said, actions would escalate if the zoo's veterinary staff deemed it necessary. Steps may include increased surveillance and supplies and moving the birds indoors to prevent contact with diseased outside birds, he said. . As he talks, small wild birds fly by the vulture enclosure, unaware of their part in the emergency drill.
"People often think a zoo is just fun, they don't realize how much zoos plan and prepare for every possible situation," said Edward Wilkerson, the Web facilitator for the exercise.
The facilitators even made a contingency plan for the exercise itself, creating a backup version in case the website malfunctioned. Worrying is part of the job, Wilkerson said, which included watching the virus outbreak movie "Contagion" as "field research."
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