The Ripley’s Aquarium fire threat in Gatlinburg forced a mandatory evacuation of all employees, and many of them were heartbroken at the thought of leaving 10,000 nonhuman inhabitants behind. The story tugged at the heartstrings of animal lovers across the nation, who have waited with bated breath for news of the animals’ welfare.
Wildfires have been raging out of control in Tennessee for days, zeroing in on the tourist resort areas of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Lengthy drought conditions and 70 miles per hour wind gusts have fueled and spread the flames and smoke through Great Smoky Mountain National Park. So far, CNN reports that three people have lost their lives in the fires, and 14,000 were ordered to evacuate. The residents of Ripley’s Aquarium, however, could not be evacuated.
On Monday, the raging flames had encroached to a distance of 50 yards from the aquarium, posing a dangerous threat to the facility’s workers, thus requiring their evacuation to safety. According to The Washington Post, Ryan DeSear, the general manager of Tennessee Ripley Attractions, was among the last to vacate the premises. According to DeSear, many of the employees, who devote their hearts to caring for critters, were reluctant to abandon the animals in their charge and had to be forced to evacuate.
“They would as soon die in the aquarium to save a penguin to save themselves, and that’s the kind of folks that we’re talking about, so it’s heartbreaking for them, absolutely, in every sense of the word.”
The dedication and heavy hearts experienced by these employees is admirable, and it is not unusual. Anyone who is passionate about animals and has ever worked in a facility that houses and cares for animals can tell you that each creature has a name, a personality and its own unique bond with specific caretakers. To leave these furry, feathery, and scaly souls behind in a perilous situation is a painful decision for those who value all life, human and animal, equally.
Ripley’s Aquarium is home to 10,000 animals, including penguins, sharks, and other marine life. The facility’s collection of 350 different species includes some exotic and endangered marine animals. As long as the building has power, which can be provided by generators in the event of an emergency, the animals can be sustained without human intervention for 24 hours. A final walk through on Monday evening confirmed that all of the animals appeared fine and were behaving normally, exhibiting no signs of sensing impending danger. Throughout the night on Monday, however, the humans’ sense of dread was focused on the likelihood that flames would destroy the building and kill all of its helpless inhabitants.
Early Tuesday morning, DeSear reported on Facebook that the imminent Ripley’s Aquarium fire threat had spared the structure, which remained intact. With the downtown Gatlinburg evacuation order still in effect, getting back to the facility was the next hurdle to clear toward checking on the conditions of the animals inside. A few hours later, every individual of the nation’s expansive animal loving community breathed a collective sigh of relief.
A police escort led DeSear and an emergency team of marine biologists and life support specialists to the aquarium. Once inside, the group was greeted by the welcome sight that they had hoped for. All 10,000 animals are reported to be safe at this time, and the team is monitoring and caring for the creatures. Teams from the Ripley’s Aquariums in Myrtle Beach and Buffalo are on standby if the need for additional assistance arises.
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While the nation watches helplessly as fires transform a beautiful tourist town into a flaming hell on Earth, the notion that a building that houses so many animal lives was spared gives a spark of hope and a moment of grateful relief. Firefighters continue to battle the wildfires, however, and the area remains a danger zone. For the safety of employees and tourists, the Ripley’s Aquarium will remain closed until the evacuation has been lifted, and the caretaker team will continue their efforts to keep the animals within safe and sound.
[Featured Image by marrio31/iStock]