Fact check: Viral posts falsely claim animals escaped zoo in New Jersey amid Ida

The claim: Animals escaped a New Jersey zoo during storm

The remnants of Hurricane Ida hit New Jersey on Sept. 1, resulting in submerged neighborhoods, roads and parking lots and at least 27 deaths.

In the wake of the storm, pictures were shared on social media purportedly showing exotic animals roaming the streets after escaping from Essex County’s Turtle Back Zoo in New Jersey.

“Breaking: Reports of escaped animals circulate throughout South Orange, New Jersey after the TurtleBack Zoo is severely flooded,” reads a tweet from the Twitter page “CNN Breaking News,” which was shared as a screenshot to Facebook on Sept. 2. “Local authorities advise all South Orange residents to stay home until the animals are returned back to their homes.”

“Yea stay inside please,” the user captioned the Facebook post, which was shared 900 times within a week. Several versions of the claim include photos of different animals such as a lion, crocodile and penguins walking down a flooded street.

Other users shared a screenshot of a purported text warning that says penguins, lions, bears, otters, gorillas and reptiles are “fleeing the zoo premises.”

"I can't believe I'm in Atlanta and there's a real life jumanji going on in New Jersey," one Instagram user captioned the text alert on Sept. 2.

But this never happened. The animals remained secure at the zoo during the storm, and the photos shared along with the claim were captured years ago.

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The social media users who shared the post did not return requests for comment.

Turtle Back Zoo says no animals escaped

On Sept. 2, Turtle Back Zoo took to Twitter to thank people for their concern and quell rumors that animals had escaped the zoo.

“Staff stayed through the night to monitor,” the tweet reads. “There was no loss of power and all of our animals and animal areas weathered the storm well and remain safe and secure within the facility.”

Similarly, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo issued a statement on Sept. 2 saying reports of animals fleeing Turtle Back Zoo were "unequivocally false” and that the zoo did not lose power.

Further, the Twitter page for “CNN Breaking News” included in the posts is a parody account, according to the page’s bio. The page shared the post to Twitter on Sept. 2, as a joke, but many users who shared a screenshot of the tweet to other platforms thought it was an authentic report.

It's an example of "stolen satire," in which made-up claims published and labeled as satire are captured via screenshot and reposted in a way that makes them appear to be legitimate news. As a result, readers of the second-generation post are misled, as was the case here.

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Photos were captured years ago

Independent fact-checking organizations tracked down the origins of the photos of the animals and reported the images have been circulating online for years.

The photo of the lion walking across the street was taken in India in 2019, when lions roamed the streets of Gujarat after heavy rain, according to India Today.

The image of the penguins was taken in 2016 in a seaside suburb near Cape Town, South Africa, and it can be seen in a BBC Earth article with the caption, “The streetwise penguins of Simon's Town.”

The photo of the crocodile was taken in 2019 during a flood in Townsville, Australia. And the image of the gorilla appeared in a November 2014 article from the Orange Country Register headlined, “Anaheim Hills residents going ape over gorilla-like creature sighting.”

USA TODAY previously debunked similar claims that animals escaped Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago during protests against racial injustice in June 2020.

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Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that animals escaped a zoo in New Jersey. The zoo and Essex County said the reports were not true, and all animals were secured ahead of the storm. The page that first shared the claim is a parody account, and photos used to support the claim have circulated online for years.

Our fact-check sources:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: No, animals did not escape a New Jersey zoo during Ida