Eyewitnesses describe frantic search for loose Duluth zoo animals

Duluth Zoo animals
Feisty, one of two harbor seals transferred from the Lake Superior Zoo to Como Zoo due to flooding in Duluth, is on display Thursday, June 21, 2012 in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

As heavy rain flooded the Lake Superior Zoo Tuesday night, no one was there to notice that a polar bear and two seals had escaped from their enclosures.

The zoo's response to the flood took hours and left some residents wondering it was safe to leave their homes. Zoo keepers did not realize the facility was flooded until they received a call about a seal in the middle of a nearby road.

That's because, unlike the Minnesota Zoo and the Como Zoo, the Lake Superior Zoo does not have 24-hour security guards, cameras, or motion detectors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos, does not require zoos to provide 24-hour security. Officials at the Duluth zoo said the flood was unpredictable and they had planned to install security cameras later this summer.

A chaotic scene unfolded after Duluth residents spotted the loose zoo animals.

Northeast Minnesota Floods: The Latest
• Photos: Duluth, northeast Minnesota awash
• Photos: Gooseberry Falls at full trottle
• Photos: North Shore residents shocked by deluge
• Photos: Moose Lake fights the flood
• Story: Tourism-dependent region worries
• Story: Duluth turns to FEMA for help
• Story: Cell phone, 911, cable out in Arrowhead
• Story: Frantic search for loose zoo animals
• Map: Duluth, North Shore flood zone
• Closures: Highways, Duluth streets, state parks

Donald Melton drove past the zoo sometime after 2 a.m. and noticed what he thought was an injured dog in the middle of the road. He circled back and turned on his headlights.

''I'm like, 'What the hell is that?''' he said. It was a seal named 'Feisty'. Melton decided to call 911, but he couldn't find his phone.

Zoo seal on Grand Avenue
This seal is one of two that escaped from the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth during last night's floods. It was photographed on Grand Avenue. Zoo officials say the seals were returned safely.
Courtesy of Ellie Burchar

As he said he considered whether to load the seal into his car, another driver, Ellie Burchar, pulled up.

''My first thought was like, 'Oh my god, there's a seal from the zoo,'' she said. ''Nobody even knew the seal was out or the zoo was even flooded.''

She grabbed her phone and snapped a quick photo, which would later be viewed by hundreds of thousands of people online. A fire truck noticed the cars and the flopping animal and pulled over, while Burchar called 911.

''The fire crew's like, 'How do we do this? Do we got a tarp?'' she said. ''Should we cut a hole in the fence and let him go back in?''

One of the fire officials called the zoo's animal management director, Peter Pruett, while another walked across the street to the zoo's fence to find out how the animal escaped. He returned with bad news.

''He said, 'the zoo is under water,' Burchar recalled. ''And I'm thinking, 'Oh my god. What about the rest of the animals?''

Those animals included a polar bear named Berlin, a grizzly bear, and several tigers. The group nervously watched the fence and waited for zoo keepers to arrive. About five hours had passed since the last zoo employee had left for the night.

Pruett, the animal management director, was the first zoo employee on the scene. He focused on the seal at first and convinced her to walk back to the zoo's gates. When they arrived, Pruett saw the flood waters and began calling every zoo keeper with an urgent message: Get to the zoo as fast as you can.

Duluth Zoo animals
Berlin, a polar bear from the Lake Superior Zoo, found a new temporary home at Como Zoo Thursday, June 21, 2012 in St. Paul. As a result of floods in Duluth, a polar bear and two harbor seals were moved to Como Zoo.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

By 3:30 a.m., the search had begun. Zoo keepers, accompanied by armed police officers, waded through the flood waters and headed for the carnivore exhibits. They tranquilized the tigers, loaded them on a pick-up truck, and drove them to a more secure area in the zoo, in case the flooding worsened.

As dawn broke, animal management director Peter Pruett looked up and saw Berlin, the zoo's polar bear, standing on a rock outside her enclosure, surveying the damage. The flood waters rapidly receded, and Berlin climbed off the rock to explore nearby exhibits. A zoo official then shot her with a tranquilizer gun. The bear ran a few feet toward the tiger exhibit and collapsed. She was later transported, along with two seals, to the Como Zoo in St. Paul. All three animals are safe and doing well, Pruett said.

Other animals weren't so lucky. Thirteen animals drowned in the zoo's barnyard area--a miniature donkey, 4 Nigerian dwarf goats, 6 sheep, a turkey vulture and a snowy owl. One raven is still missing.

Zoo keepers worked for more than 20 hours, almost non-stop, clearing debris and looking for animals.

''Throughout the whole day, you took care of business, and then you stopped, and you cried a little bit, and then you got back up and you went back to work,'' Pruett said.

The zoo plans to re-evaluate its emergency response procedures and install security cameras, but Pruett said it's unclear whether cameras would have helped. He said the flooding was so unexpected and happened so quickly, that even if security guards had been at the zoo, they likely would not have been able to rescue the animals.

''We can sit back and go, 'We should have done this or that,''' he said. ''But that's easy to do after the fact.''

When zoos flood, zoo keepers they often have at least some advance notice. The Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, North Dakota had three days to evacuate before a flood hit the area last summer, said zoo director David Merritt.

''That's a big difference than being caught off guard in the middle of the night,'' he said.

The Minot zoo was badly damaged in the flood and remains closed. Most of the animals were sent to other zoos around the country. The zoo might be able to re-open by the end of the summer, Merritt said, but most of the exhibits will still be closed.

Pruett said the recovery effort at his zoo will be much faster. A volunteer clean-up is planned for this weekend, and Pruett hopes to re-open most of the zoo in about a week. However, the polar bear and seal exhibits will probably stay closed for months, he said.

The zoo plans to ask a structural engineer to survey the damage to find out what caused the flooding.