Zoo Knoxville Suffers Loss of 32 Reptiles

Communications Director

Kristin Farley
(865) 215-2589

400 Main St., Room 691
Knoxville, TN 37902

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Zoo Knoxville Suffers Loss of 32 Reptiles

Posted: 03/27/2017
Zoo Knoxville suffered the loss of 32 reptiles in an event that happened between the hours of 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 21 and 8:00 a.m. Wednesday, March 22, 2017.  Exactly what occurred is under investigation and the event was isolated to one building in the reptile area.  

Dr. Patrick Sullivan from UTCVM and Heather Debord from Zoo Knoxville tend to a snake affected by the environmental event.

Zoo staff entered the building on Wednesday morning and discovered 30 snakes and one lizard unresponsive.  The zoo’s animal clinic and vets from the University College of Veterinary Medicine responded immediately.  Surviving animals were evacuated and given oxygen and each unresponsive animal was checked for a heartbeat with ultrasound equipment.  Of the 52 animals housed in the building, 32 succumbed. Iconic snakes popular with visitors, including a forest cobra and albino Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and three critically endangered species, the Louisiana pine snake, Catalina Island rattlesnake and Aruba Island rattlesnake, were among the fatalities.

BLack Head PythonRadiated Tortoise
Black Head Python and Radiated Tortoise were among those affected

“This is a devastating and catastrophic loss to our zoo,” said Lisa New, President and CEO of Zoo Knoxville.  “These animals were important ambassadors who helped so many people understand the role snakes and lizards play in the balance of nature.  We also lost breeding programs for several endangered and threatened species.  It is especially difficult for our herpetologists who have dedicated their careers to caring for and advocating for these animals.”     

Michael_Ogle_Zoo_Knoxville_Dr._Andrew_Cushing_UTCVMThe building where the event occurred has been taken out of use while the event is investigated and necropsy results are performed.  The other buildings in the zoo’s reptile facility were not impacted and continue to be used for housing and public viewing.    


Zoo Knoxville continues to investigate the cause of reptile deaths isolated to one building of the zoo’s reptile complex.  Based on initial necropsy findings from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, food, disease and infection have been ruled out as causes.  Examination of the lungs of the animals showed some indication that they had been exposed to an irritant.  Results from the analysis of blood and tissue samples will be examined over the next few weeks for more clues.  

Zoo officials suspect something sudden and catastrophic occurred inside the building to alter the environment.  The day the animals were discovered, the building was tested for carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane gas, natural gas and Freon, and none were detected.  The building was sealed and the air tested again two days later, but no detectable levels were found.        
The building is equipped with a temperature monitoring system that sends an alarm call if temperatures fall outside of acceptable ranges.  Testing on these systems showed all are working properly.  A thermostat was discovered to be malfunctioning, but review of the monitoring activity inside the building show no alert that temperatures were outside accepted ranges was received the night of the incident.  Strong thunderstorms were recorded that night, although there was no evidence of power loss or a lightning strike, and the animal housing was not conductive to electricity.  There is nothing to indicate the deaths are directly related to the weather. 

The building is still out of use while the zoo awaits further information from the necropsies and continues to explore possible causes.  The other buildings in the zoo’s reptile facility were not impacted and continue to be used for housing and public viewing.    

Also, Zoo Knoxville located a missing yellow headed poison dart frog which changed the loss to 32 instead of the original 33 reported.

Zoo Knoxville is a nonprofit entity situated on 53 wooded acres just east of downtown Knoxville. Zoo Knoxville features exhibits of wild animals in natural habitats and is world renowned for its efforts in conservation and species survival. Zoo Knoxville is nationally accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and is committed to the highest standards in animal care and well-being, ethics, conservation, and education. Knoxville’s largest attraction, the zoo is open every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Beginning March 11, 2017, the zoo is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.  Admission and ticket sales stop one-hour before the zoo closes. For more information visit zooknoxville.org

Photos provided by Zoo Knoxville.