Two Memphis Zoo officials are half a world away helping salvage a zoo ravaged by floods last summer.
Animal curator Farshid Mehrdadfar and director of research and conservation Kimberly Terrell traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia, on Sept. 12 to work with Tbilisi Zoo officials to rebuild the facility after a flood in June 2015 severely damaged the city.
“I knew from following what happened on the news that the flooding was tragic, but until I landed in Tbilisi, my mind struggled to grasp the enormity of the situation,” Mehrdadfar said in the statement. “The lower section of the zoo was gone.”
On June 13 and 14, 2015, heavy rainfall caused severe flooding in the Vere River Valley. The disaster killed at least 12 people and damaged infrastructure across the city. The zoo was hit particularly hard because of its proximity to the Vere River. According to a statement from the Memphis Zoo, the Tbilisi Zoo suffered major damage to 39 animal exhibits and nearly 300 animals died. Three zoo staff members were also killed.
Zoo animals roamed the city in the aftermath of the floods and citizens were warned to stay inside until the wolves, bears, hippopotamuses and other animals were brought under control.
Shortly after the flooding, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Office of International Programs selected the Memphis Zoo to travel to Georgia to “help get the ball rolling,” said zoo spokeswoman Laura Doty. Memphis was chosen “because of its expertise in animal care, public education, research, facilities management and the ability to leverage additional resources through partnerships with other zoos,” she said.
Mehrdadfar, whose grandmother is from the area, visited Tbilisi to assess the damage as the first part of a rehabilitation plan. He gathered information about the scope of the damage and animal collection needs in order to make recommendations for the zoo’s eventual recuperation.
Almost a year after the floods, Tbilisi Zoo officials visited the United States to tour American zoos. Between June 10 and July 3, the Georgian zookeepers, curators, education staff and others visited the Memphis Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri, and Audubon Zoo in New Orleans to learn about emergency response planning, public education and biodiversity conservation, Doty said.
Now Mehrdadfar and Terrell are in Tbilisi providing intensive training and recommendations on animal care and exhibit design. The two zoos are working to create a master plan for recovery and the eventual institution of education and conservation programs.
“The Tbilisi Zoo has access to endangered animals in that part of the world that are not found in the U.S.,” Terrell said in the statement. “Likewise, we can share the latest techniques from our side of the world to conduct new research on these species.”