Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Animals on the Move

Safe animal transport takes precise planning, intense training, and the ability to cope with surprises.

By Valerie May

Imagine shipping an heirloom to a loved one. You pack it as carefully as you can, hoping it will arrive intact. Now, to complicate things, imagine that your precious cargo lives and breathes and requires food and water. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo faces just that challenge every year as it transports animals in and out of the Zoo. Last year, 2,175 Zoo animals went on the move. Most were invertebrates, mainly aquatic creatures such as cuttlefish.

Behind the scenes of each animal move is a complicated scenario involving dozens of steps. On average, at least two months of planning goes into each animal transport. Each scenario is unique, depending on the animal and the circumstances of the move. Small animals are more delicate; large animals present greater logistical challenges. Amphibians require a specific water temperature.

Those are just a few examples of the nuances involved. “As soon as you say ‘routine shipment,’ you are setting yourself up for trouble,” says Frank Kohn of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Every animal is unique, and there is no such thing as ‘routine.’”

Big Move

It took nearly a year to plan the transport scenario for the biggest— literally—move of 2009, Happy the hippo’s departure for Milwaukee. A 5,000-pound Nile hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), Happy was heading to the Milwaukee County Zoo, where he would live with other hippos and have the opportunity to breed.

Once the decision was reached to send the 29-year-old hippo to Milwaukee, John Taylor, Happy’s keeper for the past 15 years, began crate-training him. Yes, crate-training. Making Happy comfortable and secure in his moving crate required hours of positive behavioral training—essentially food rewards for Happy when he entered his crate.

Meanwhile, the Zoo’s facilities group began planning a custom moving crate for Happy with the assistance of two consulting engineers. A team of 16 builders took the engineers’ sketches and fashioned the steel crate. It was 16.5 by 7 by 8.10 feet and weighed 10,000 pounds. It included air vents; sliding doors for water, food, and vet access; and a system of straps that could be used to hoist Happy to his feet should he fall.

Pierre Comizzoli

A crane lifts Happy the hippo from his Zoo enclosure in 2009. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

"Think in terms of a 5,000-pound bowling ball rolling around the inside of that crate,” says Don Moore, the Zoo’s associate director for animal care science. Squirminess was a real possibility, since the practice of tranquilizing animals for transport is minimized as much as possible. Safe, humane, and effective transport requires an animal that can position itself safely and whose health can be monitored during the move.

Months of crate-training paid off on September 28, 2009. That day, Happy walked calmly into his crate. Once he was secured, eight tons of hippopotamus and house were hoisted onto a truck and driven west. A chase car followed, carrying a vet and two keepers. Zoos along the way were alerted to make sure special help would be available in case of emergency.

Happily, the emergency never came. Happy remained calm and well through his move, reaching Milwaukee at about 3 a.m. the next morning. Despite the late hour, Happy’s new home was ready. Light flooded the unloading area, and some 15 people stood by to begin the two-hour process of unloading Happy and welcoming him to his new digs. Happy came out of his crate calmly, sniffed, and went into his living area. That good start seems to have been an omen, for Happy has settled well into his new home.

Flying Tiger

Happy made his move by truck, but some animals take to the skies when they depart. That was the case for Melati, a young Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris) who moved to the Dallas Zoo last July as part of a breeding program. She flew aboard a FedEx plane, accompanied by National Zoo keeper Marie Magnuson and Dallas Zoo keeper Becky Wolf.

Melati and her entourage departed the Zoo before dawn. The trip started with coaxing the tiger into a steel crate, a behavior keepers had trained her to do. Despite the practice, entering the crate and being hoisted onto a truck was “pretty amazing and scary” for Melati, Magnuson says. Yet the cat was “a brave girl.” The one time she got “feisty” was when FedEx workers put netting over her crate to secure it to a pallet.

A truck carried Melati to Dulles, where reams of paperwork—an inescapable part of transporting endangered animals— awaited. Once everything was in order and Melati safely aboard, the plane took off. Magnuson and Wolf rode on jump seats behind the cockpit so they could attend Melati if she needed them. She didn’t.

In Dallas, Melati and company were greeted by a SWAT team from the Dallas Police Department. Transferring Melati from the plane to a new truck went so smoothly, however, that there was nothing for the cops to do, Magnusson says, beside “standing around, looking tough.”

Melati reached her new home around 8 p.m. It had been a long day for her and her keepers. All the planning, practice, and paperwork had yielded fruit: Another animal transport was safely complete.

Crate Expectations

The heart of that success story—training an animal to enter a crate and remain calm as it’s moved—lies at the core of countless Zoo moves. Breeding programs, vet visits, and facility renovations all require moving animals. So most of the Zoo’s keepers crate-train their animals as part of regular care. Zoo visitors can sometimes see an animal’s crate in its enclosure.

This type of training requires repetition, time, repetition, patience, and more repetition. “The nice thing about training is the diversity of behavior you can apply one command to. If the animal understands the command, then you can teach it to enter a Sky Kennel, induction box [a clear box used for vet visits], or whatever. That’s the goal, achieving the behavior with minimal rewards,” says Kenton Kerns, a keeper at the Small Mammal House.

Given enough time and practice, some animals learn to enter their crate without getting a food reward. This is useful for when a vet specifies that an animal needs to come for a checkup with an empty stomach. “Our red panda had to enter the crate without food and stress-free for an exam at the hospital,” recalls Kerns. Thanks to crate-training, it did.

Crate-training came in handy last year when the Zoo’s seals and sea lions moved out of their enclosure so it could be renovated. In response to tasty fish snacks, the gray seals, Selkie and Gunnar, learned to beach themselves and scoot to their transport crates. They are now off exhibit in a temporary home. Meanwhile, the Zoo’s California sea lions, Calli and Summer, have moved temporarily to the Pittsburgh Zoo. “Once the girls were in their squeeze cages, they just lifted them onto a truck. Calli barked a little bit but then settled down,” says keeper Rebecca Miller.

Crate-training also helps keepers avoid various stress-related actions. Ms. Cricket, a toucan with an endearing personality, suffered an injury early in life. That makes moving her especially tricky. Without crate-training, she would need to be captured with a net for transport.

Pierre Comizzoli

Ms. Cricket the toucan relaxes in her crate. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Instead, Zoo biologist Dan Boritt has been working with Ms. Cricket for months. “There are lots of stops and starts,” he says. “The crate is a very vulnerable place for her, and it requires a lot of confidence building. But we are 99 percent there with Ms. Cricket.” She’s not alone. About 30 percent of all the bird species at the Zoo are in the process of crate-training.

Birds in general offer special challenges to transport efforts. Flamingos and cranes not only need to be crated but also must be stabilized for their long, spindly legs, generally using slings. The weird story “always comes down to birds in my mind,” says Don Moore as he recalls transporting hummingbirds. “They were sitting in a sort of sock on the seat next to my colleague in the airplane. You have to feed them every two hours or so with a sugar solution.”


Even when every eventuality has been planned for, things still take unexpected turns. Last June, keeper Carlos Torrez from the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans  came to Washington to pick up three rhea eggs, gifts from the National Zoo. Torrez carried them in a small container, discreet enough to slip under his seat.

By the time Torrez reached his seat, however, all three eggs had hatched. Thanks to a sympathetic crew, Torrez was allowed to finish his mission, and the trio of chicks arrived safely at their new home. Small mammals curator Bob King once had an airport adventure of his own. He went to National Airport to pick up a howler monkey. He knew the animal had been placed on the plane, but the cargo crew couldn’t locate it. Finally, they determined that the crate had been put on the carousel with the regular luggage.

“I got over there as quickly as I could,” King says. “By then, they had taken this huge crate off the carousel, and there was a family peering in and shouting, ‘Monkey, monkey!’ Luckily, howlers are pretty laid-back. I think ‘bemused’ is the best description of the look on his face.”

Sometimes animals take their sweet time with a move. That happens often with zebras, says curator Craig Saffoe. They tend to be afraid of new things, so it may take hours to convince a zebra to enter a horse trailer. There’s not much keepers can do but keep trying—and waiting. Once the trailer reaches its destination, the waiting game begins afresh. By then, the trailer has become familiar, and the zebra is reluctant to leave it for a new setting.

Not every animal-move story has a happy ending. In 2008, a hippo died during a transfer from the Denver Zoo to Canada’s Calgary Zoo. Kohn from Fish and Wildlife surmises that the animal probably had a preexisting condition, although there were also concerns about the width of the
crate. “You try and take something like that as a learning experience,” he says. Reviews of transport incidents like this one helped the National Zoo decide to build a custom crate for Happy’s successful move to Milwaukee.

Common Threads

From sock-size hummingbirds to hefty hippos, each animal move is one of a kind. Each, as we’ve seen, presents distinct challenges. Yet common threads bind the hundreds of transports that the Zoo undertakes every year. All moves begin with painstaking planning. Most involve sturdy crates—and persistent, patient training to get animals used to them. Some bring surprises. And each, the Zoo strives to ensure, ends with the safe delivery of precious cargo.


— Freelance writer and web producer Valerie May has created websites for National Geographic and AARP.


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(1) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.