Fire forces Ripley's Aquarium employees to leave thousands of animals behind

GATLINBURG, Tenn. --- Employees at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies were forced to evacuate Monday as wildfire spread into Gatlinburg.

Aquarium staff were forced to leave behind over 10,000 animals, according to Tennessee Ripley Attractions General Manager Ryan DeSear. DeSear said he wasn't sure if flames reached Ripley's Aquarium, but a "raging fire" was about 50 yards away from the aquarium when workers were evacuated on Monday night.

DeSear said the aquarium's live web camera was still active, and the building was still standing.

"As long as we have fuel in our generators, that aquarium can run on its own," DeSear said.

The Gatlinburg Fire Department ordered the mandatory evacuation of downtown Gatlinburg as wind conditions worsened and several fires grew increasingly unpredictable and dangerous on Monday night.

DeSear said he was one of the last people out of the building at 7:45 p.m. Monday, and said he had to force many of the workers to leave because they didn't want to leave the animals without help.

"They were force evacuated," DeSear said. "To them, every animal has a name. You don't give that up."

Unfortunately, he said, "Nothing is more important than human life. Fish can be replaced. It sucks."

DeSear said as long as the building had power and didn't catch fire, the animals should be safe. When everything is functioning normally, the animals can survive for 24 hours without human intervention.

Before he left, he did a final check of the animals and said they were behaving normally, which he took as a good sign because animals have an acute sense of danger.

"We need to be one of the first people allowed back in when it's safe," he said. "I hope the people manning the checkpoint hear our plea."


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