Zoo Knoxville on the deaths of 33 reptiles: ‘It may remain a mystery to us’

Local News


After testing samples all weekend, the staff at Zoo Knoxville is learning more about the mysterious deaths of 33 reptiles in their Herpetology Exhibit.

“It was you know a pretty catastrophic loss,” said President and CEO of Zoo Knoxville, Lisa New.

Questions still surround the sudden deaths of two lizards and 31 snakes, all found dead at Zoo Knoxville Wednesday morning when zoo keepers got to work.

“That night there was a terrible storm and we know that there was lots of lightening and things here at the zoo but the zoo has no record of losing power,” New said.

Causes of death being ruled out so far are; food, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane gas, natural gas, Freon, disease/ infection and foul play. While Zoo Knoxville waits for one more test to come back the answer may never be known.

“The veterinarians have prepared me for the fact that we may not know. Whatever it was that caused it may remain a mystery to us,” said New. “We do know that we found a faulty thermostat in the building that regulates hot and cold, however our alarm systems are functioning appropriately.”

In the case the building where the 33 reptiles died dropped below a certain temperature or went above a certain temperature an alarm would’ve been sent out to a third party. Staff with Zoo Knoxville has since checked that alarm and say it is working properly.

“We lost three critically endangered species in this collection,” said Director of Animal Care Phil Colclough, with Zoo Knoxville.

“There are protocols set forth by the SSP which is the Species Survival Programs that ask us to donate some of those remains to other institutions,” Colclough. “That information lives on to teach us things about the species in general.”

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, 33 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.

“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.”

The 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.

“It’s an aging facility and we hope in the future to build a new one so we’re having tests run, we’re looking for gases, we’re looking for mechanical errors on thermostats,” said Phil Colclough with Zoo Knoxville. “We’re grasping at straws at this point to find out exactly what caused this.”

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