It was 3.34am when the earthquake hit the zoo.
It was in February last year and I was there at the time, staying with the director and his family. It’s hard to describe what happened during the earthquake. I was already awake, having been jolted from sleep by a cacophony of animal noises. I can’t remember getting up from my bed to the corridor but somehow I did. Once there, the house was moving so hard that it was impossible to stand up without losing your balance. Running down the corridor I just had a bewildering impression of noise, falling objects and darkness. I remember clinging onto the banister as we tried to get down the stairs; the ground undulating like a snake. Somehow all fourteen of us made it to the front door, where we waited, trembling under the archway. Three long minutes passed until the earth finally stopped shaking.
The after effects were, if possible, even more chaotic. Everyone ran to their vehicles. The worry was not just whether any of the big mammals were loose but whether the reptile house or the bug house had survived. With hundreds of poisonous animals inside, the results would have been catastrophic. There was no electricity that night, nor would there be for several days, so the inspection of the zoo had to be made with only a few torches and mobile phones to light the way.
If the earthquake had been instinctive animal fear, the opening of the zoo gates was completely psychological. They are huge and completely block any view into the zoo from the outside. Worse, someone had to get out of the car and open them on foot. Esteban, the 21 year old in charge of animal training volunteered, he told me later it was one of the scariest moments of his life, opening the gate with no idea of what might be waiting for him on the other side.
Thankfully there was nothing deadly. In fact miraculously, none of the animals had gotten loose, apart from the male zebra that smashed through a wooden fence in its desperation to get away. The zoo was a mess but there was no lasting damage, more importantly none of the animals had been seriously hurt.
It was after the earthquake that some of the keepers began to comment on the animals having been restless the day before. Two wolf pups were being hand reared at the time and they were particularly nervous at their evening feed, whining and trembling in a corner. Folklore says that animals are supposed to know when an earthquake is approaching but this has remained controversial scientifically. It is difficult to say for certain whether the behaviour of the zoo animals was linked to the earthquake but it was certainly unusual. Scientifically proven or not, after having woken up to hear the roar of a frightened lion being turned into the roar of the earth, I for one will be keeping an eye on those animals.