As fast-spreading wildfires destroyed property and forced evacuations in eastern Tennessee, concern had mounted Monday for thousands of animals that were left behind at the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg.
Around 11 a.m. Tuesday, aquarium officials said that more than 10,000 of its fish, penguins and other living creatures were found safe, narrowly escaping flames and smoke that had threatened the structure overnight.
“We are grateful to have had the police escort our emergency team back into the Aquarium early this morning to check on the well-being of our animals,” the aquarium said in a statement. “We have a team of Marine Biologists and Life Support Experts inside the Aquarium and are happy to report that the animals are safe.”
The aquarium added that it would be closed until further notice, and that Ripley teams in Myrtle Beach and Buffalo were “on standby” to assist its Gatlinburg staff if needed.
All employees of the aquarium were evacuated from the aquarium around 8:30 p.m. Monday — many reluctant to abandon the animals there, Tennessee Ripley Attractions general manager Ryan DeSear told WBIR News early Tuesday morning.
“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,” DeSear told the news station. “So it’s heartbreaking for them, absolutely, in every sense of the word.”
DeSear added that, even in past evacuations for hurricanes and floods, the aquarium would have kept one team there. In this case, all humans needed to leave the building because of smoke and a “raging fire” about 50 yards from the building.
“We had every expectation at that point to lose the aquarium, we really did,” DeSear told WBIR.
DeSear did not respond to a phone call Tuesday morning requesting comment. On his social media feeds, he appeared to have stayed up for much of the night monitoring the status of the fires and the aquarium’s webcam.
At about 4:20 a.m. Tuesday, DeSear posted an update on his Facebook page saying: “The aquarium still stands.”
The aquarium had announced earlier Monday that it was staying open to the public “as long as possible” as “a refuge for people on the streets who need relief, a place to eat and breathe.”
Just before 10 a.m. Tuesday, the aquarium posted on Facebook to say its biologists were rushing to return to the aquarium, but had still not been allowed back into the city.
About an hour later, the aquarium updated its website to indicate all of its animals were safe.
According to its website, the 85,000-square-foot Aquarium of the Smokies is home to about 350 species, including some exotic and endangered sea creatures. “There are more fish in this aquarium than there are people living in the entire town of Gatlinburg,” the website declares.
DeSear told WBIR News early Tuesday that he had run a final check of the animals before he left and they seemed to be behaving normally. He added that the aquarium can run “very self-sufficiently” as long as the building retained power.
“It’s like a starship in there,” DeSear told the news station. “As long as we have fuel in our generators, that aquarium can run on its own.”
A fire burning on the Chimney Tops mountain, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Smokies, exploded from 10 acres Sunday night into a 500-acre blaze Monday night, according to Reuters.
The mountain is part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where “extreme weather conditions … led to the exponential spread of fires,” park officials said.
As the fires spread to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., emergency officials ordered evacuations throughout Sevier County and shut down the park.
There were no reports of fatalities as of Tuesday morning, but the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said that three people with severe burns were transferred from University of Tennessee’s Knoxville hospital to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville overnight. A fourth with facial burns continues to be evaluated at the hospital in Knoxville, TEMA said.
The animals at the Aquarium of the Smokies were not the only ones threatened Monday. Around 8 p.m., the American Eagle Foundation conducted its first-ever “emergency bird evacuation” from the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary in Dollywood, home to “one of the largest collections of non-releasable bald eagles in the world.”
With fires burning only a few miles away, first responders from the foundation loaded 50 to 60 birds into travel kennels and “every available vehicle” to rush them out of Pigeon Forge.
“It wasn’t graceful, but we did our best to retrieve every bird and then load about 40-50 pounds of raptor food along with,” the foundation said in a Facebook post. “These birds are now resting safely in individual kennels at several AEF staff member homes 10+ miles away from the fires.”
Travis M. Andrews and Lindsey Bever contributed to this report.