Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc in Western and Central Florida at the end of September. Countless Floridians were affected, and the damage ranged from minor to catastrophic. The death toll from the deadly storm is currently in the hundreds. One particularly vulnerable group, however, were the thousands of animals that move in Florida’s many theme parks, zoos, and other attractions.
Native animals to the area have developed what are known in biology as adaptations that allow them to weather the weather in the area. This means they’ve developed ways to survive the storm. Whether it be their unique burrowing habits or their extremely protective outer layers, they are well equipped for whatever mother nature throws at them in their natural habitat. The animals at a theme park like Disney’s Animal Kingdom, for example, do not have any such adaptations.
This made us wonder what happens to Animal Kingdom’s animals during extreme weather conditions. Luckily, Disney has an expert like Katie Leighty, animal care director for Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment team. Leighty and 50 Cast Members from her team were among Disney’s “Ride Out Crew,” but instead of riding out the storm in one of Disney’s comfortable hotels, they rode it in the animal barns.
“We set up cots and air mattresses. Everyone brought snacks. Everyone was just in great spirits the whole time. It’s definitely seeing your cast members in a different light,” Leighty said with a laugh. “One of the unique things that we always talk about at Disney Parks is how we all come together to get through challenges and take care of each other. Those moments when we come together are always special.”
Leighty also explained that the preparations for the animals wasn’t much different than the preparations made for humans. In the days before the storm, Cast members stocked up on food for the animals. They also assessed and removed potential hazards, like low-lying tree limbs, and determined where animals would be safest and most comfortable through the storm.
“Some animals prefer to be outside where they can see their surroundings. Antelopes, for example, can spook easily in a storm,” Leighty said. “A lot of animals can just hunker down out on the savanna and do really well. We’ve studied their behavior over the years to know what’s best for them.”
Other animals were sheltered inside of barns to keep them and the Cast caring for them safe. During storm and subsequent lockdown, the animal care team worked in shifts around the clock to maintain security, care for the animals, and monitor the storm’s impact.
The storm brought Cast Members together to care for both the guests sheltering in place and the animals. Leighty said, “It was great to see everyone pitching in and doing whatever they could. I saw our head of custodial out there raking the park. She’s the executive in charge, and she still jumped in to help clean up for both our guests and the animals. It’s just super cool to see everyone out there for the common cause.”
All of Disney’s animals made it through the storm safely thanks to the amazing volunteer team. Because of their efforts and the efforts of the other Cast Members, the resort was able to reopen safely after only two days.