Melbourne Zoo fears animal panic during tunnel drilling blasts

The Age: Melbourne Zoo fears animal panic during tunnel drilling blasts. January 26, 2014. Henrietta Cook and Farrah Tomazin

Mali the elephant celebrates turning 4 at the Melbourne Zoo and was playing with the unnamed five week old baby elephant there. The Age. Photo: Angela Wylie. January 16 2014.
Bad vibrations: Melbourne Zoo fears that its animals – including elephants – will be spooked during building of the east-west link. Photo: Angela Wylie
Melbourne Zoo may be forced to create an early-warning system to prevent staff from being attacked by distressed animals during construction of the east-west link.

Amid fears that loud noises could scare elephants, giraffes and other much-loved creatures, zoo chiefs are considering setting up a special alarm that would notify staff before animals could be startled.

”If you are working with an antelope species and there is a loud bang and it reacts badly, that would be problematic for everyone,” Zoos Victoria chief executive Jenny Gray said.

”If [the project builders] are going to blast – and there is no expectation they will – but say for example they were going to make a really loud bang, then five minutes beforehand they would let us know so that we could then make sure that no one was at risk.”

A similar alert system was used by Oregon Zoo during the construction of a nearby underground rail tunnel in the US city of Portland.

But critics of the $8 billion Melbourne road project believe that loud noise is merely the tip of the iceberg – vibrations and light spills are among other concerns – while zoo insiders have told Fairfax Media they fear visitor numbers could fall significantly while the tunnel is being built.

To minimise the impact on animals, the zoo has asked the project’s three shortlisted bidders to ensure that light from late-night construction work is directed away from the zoo. It is also demanding designated hours where there is no noise, to ensure the animals can sleep.

Ms Gray said the zoo had gone through a painstaking process of determining how each species might be impacted by the underground road project. She said vibrations were amplified by water, which could make seals, pygmy hippos and crocodiles particularly sensitive. Giraffes, on the other hand, are skittish, not fond of loud noises and like everything to run to schedule.

But the zoo would pay particularly close attention to elephants, which have much better hearing and are more receptive to vibrations than humans.

”We need to make sure there are no loud noises or shocks – they don’t like that,” Ms Gray said.

Linking Melbourne Authority spokeswoman Gemma Boucher said the east-west link would be 150 metres from the zoo ”at its closest point” and she was confident there would be no significant impacts arising from the project.

However, she admitted a contingency plan would not be established until contracts were signed later this year, which critics claim would be too late.

”It is crucial that Melbourne Zoo demand a detailed study on the health risks to vulnerable animals prior to the signing of a contract to build the east-west toll road and tunnel,” Moreland Community Against the East West Tunnel spokesman Michael Petit said.

Community groups handed out flyers on Saturday during the zoo’s Twilights concert series to inform visitors about the potential impact of the road project, which is one of the state government’s flagship commitments ahead of this year’s election.

Opponents of the project have also written to Ms Gray and zoo director Kevin Tanner, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss possible threats.

Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews said the concerns surrounding the zoo were ”another example of Denis Napthine failing to think through the ramifications of this $8 billion tunnel”.

”First, Denis Napthine forgot about a whole apartment block and a brand-new seeing-eye dog facility in Kensington. Now, it seems Denis Napthine hasn’t realised the impact his $8 billion tunnel will have on Melbourne Zoo.”

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