Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



flock of flamingos

National Zoo Animals React to the Earthquake

August 24, 2011

The vibrations from yesterday's 5.8 earthquake were keenly felt at the National Zoo; all animals, staff, and visitors were safe and no injuries were reported. Zoo buildings were closed to the public and checked by safety personnel for structural damage. Zoo gates were closed to incoming visitors but exits were open for guests to leave at their leisure. The Zoo reopened this morning on time.

Animal care staff recognized changes in animal behavior.

Great Ape House

  • The earthquake hit the Great Ape House and Think Tank Exhibit during afternoon feeding time. 
  • About five to ten seconds before the quake, many of the apes, including Kyle (an orangutan) and Kojo (a western lowland gorilla), abandoned their food and climbed to the top of the tree-like structure in the exhibit.  
  • About three seconds before the quake, Mandara (a gorilla) let out a shriek and collected her baby, Kibibi, and moved to the top of the tree structure as well. 
  • Iris (an orangutan) began “belch vocalizing”—an unhappy/upset noise normally reserved for extreme irritation—before the quake and continued this vocalization following the quake.

Small Mammal House

  • The red-ruffed lemurs sounded an alarm call about 15 minutes before the quake and then again just after it occurred.
  • The howler monkeys sounded an alarm call just after the earthquake. 
  • The black and rufous giant elephant-shrew hid in his habitat and refused to come out for afternoon feeding.

Reptile Discovery Center

  • All the snakes (including copperheads, cotton mouth, and false water cobra) began writhing during the quake. Normally, they are inactive during the day.
  • Murphy, the Zoo’s Komodo dragon, sought shelter inside.

Invertebrate Exhibit

  • One of the volunteers at the Invertebrate Exhibit was feeding the cuttlefish and it was not responsive. The water is normally very calm in the tank, but the earthquake caused the tank to shake and created waves, which distracted the cuttlefish during feeding.


  • Keepers were feeding the beavers and hooded mergansers (a species of duck) when the earthquake hit. The ducks immediately jumped into the pool. The beavers stopped eating, stood on their hind legs and looked around, then got into the water, too. They all stayed in the water. Within an hour, some of the beavers returned to land to continue eating.

Great Cats

  • The lion pride was outside. They all stood still and faced the building, which rattled during the quake. All settled down within minutes. 
  • Damai (a female Sumatran tiger) jumped at the start of the earthquake in a startled fashion. Her behavior returned to normal after the quake.

Bird House

  • The Zoo has a flock of 64 flamingos. Just before the quake, the birds rushed about and grouped themselves together. They remained huddled during the quake.


  • Moments before the earthquake hit, a keeper walking past heard Shanthi “blow out” through her trunk, something she typically does when excited.
  • The elephants were off camera view, but at 1:51 the the two female elephants Shanthi and Ambika came into view with their heads up, trunk out and exploring, ears out, tails kinked to the side, and moving quickly (all signs of elevated interest or alarm). They went down to the gate of the next habitat where the juvenile bull was staying.

Front Royal

  • During the quake all Eld's deer and tufted deer immediately ran out of the barns and appeared agitated.
  • The Przewalski’s horses and scimitar-horned oryx hardly noticed although those that were inside did amble outside eventually.
  • Immediately after the quake the female Eld's deer herd began alarm calling (a high staccato barking sound) until they were called by their keeper and subsequently all congregated in the corner of the pasture nearest the keeper for a short time.

Giant Pandas

  • According to keepers, the giant pandas did not appear to respond to the earthquake.