Zoo stranded by titanic flood

Displaced animals won't return for a year or two

August 2, 2011 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, N.D., stands empty. No visitors enter, no employees arrive for work and no animals live there — a consequence of epic flooding six weeks ago. 

The 250 zoo inhabitants were moved to temporary quarters, other zoos and nearby farms with the assumption that they would return soon. Unfortunately, the animals will not return this year. In fact, there is some question whether they will be back to this particular location at all. 
Although the Souris River in North Dakota has receded since the flooding in June, the zoo in Minot will remain closed for up to two years due to flood damage. Photo by Randy Burkhard, used with permission from the Minot Park District.

The zoo’s infrastructure was ruined by flooding in June when the Souris River, which bisects the 21-acre facility, reportedly crested 4 feet above the record level set in 1881. Many zoo buildings were severely damaged, including a brand-new entrance building, the education building and a multi-use building used for a veterinary clinic, quarantine and winter holding. Only some buildings were insured for flooding. 

“The hard part is, we don't have any buildings at the zoo that we can work out of,” said Dr. Anne Olson, the zoo’s contract veterinarian. 

Zoo Director David Merritt estimates that it may be one to two years before the zoo, which draws some 74,000 visitors a year, can reopen.    

“I'd like to think that by this time next year we'd have several animals at the zoo but we don't know when we'll have enough to be open to the public,” Merritt said. “It's really nebulous. One reason we don't know when we can reopen is the extent of damage. The zoo was under 10 feet of water flowing like a river for two weeks. And we have winter coming on. We have a brutal winter up here, and only certain types of construction can happen during winter.”  

Merritt raised the possibility, as well, that the zoo might not return to the same flood-prone space. “The river, in normal circumstances, is a great complement to the zoo,” he said. “It’s a wild space in the middle with a lot of waterfowl and little mammals.” But the flooding highlighted the danger of being so close to the water. “Coming out of this, will it be legal to have a zoo in that area?” Merritt asked rhetorically. “Will there be smaller dikes, higher dikes or none?”  

The good news is that the zoo inhabitants were safely relocated before the waters raged. “No person or animal was hurt during the zoo evacuations,” Olson said. 

Signs that the Souris would flood led the zoo to begin moving animals out weeks before the river rose catastrophically. The enormously complicated plan of where and how to move the animals — including bobcats, lemurs, hoof stock, warthogs, kangaroos, penguins and wolves — was put into motion on May 26 when some animals were transported to other zoos, farms and a temporary shelter. 

Expecting to receive evacuation orders imminently, a team began moving animals in earnest starting at 11 a.m. June 1 and continuing until 5 a.m. June 2.

Working through that exhausting period to get the animals to safety were Olson along with the zoo’s veterinary technician Brandi Clark, six staff zookeepers, the zoo director and untold numbers of volunteers. Numerous local and federal government agencies pitched in, including animal control, police and the parks department, plus nearby zoos and farmers.

As it turned out, temporary dikes held back the water for the time being. Official evacuation was postponed, but animals that had already moved largely were left in their new quarters.

The temporary housing is a large county warehouse, now dubbed Zoo North, located about 6 miles from the zoo. Pens for housing came from the state fairgrounds. A bottle-fed lamb became Zoo North’s mascot. He was named Noah because many of the animals moved to safety happened to come in pairs like on the biblical ark. 

During the tense three weeks as the Souris continued to fill, a few animals had to be returned to the zoo, including two wolves that became aggressive with each other in the temporary shelter.  

But when the long-anticipated official evacuation order came on the afternoon of June 20, every animal remaining in the zoo had to leave. This time, gibbons, reptiles, bongos, birds and otters were moved. The reptiles went to park district property where the proper temperature for them could be maintained. The wolves went to the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, which, too, was under a flood threat — albeit less dire — from the Missouri River. Things of historical value, along with office supplies, generators and medical equipment, were moved to storage. The zoo’s perimeter fence was removed for dike reinforcement work. 

Everyone had to be out by 1 p.m. June 22. On June 23, water poured into the empty zoo. In the region, the flood displaced nearly 11,000 people and ruined 4,000 homes and many businesses. Phone and data lines were unavailable for about a month; service has been sketchy after reinstatement. 

Merritt said the zoo expected to have to anesthetize some 22 animals for the relocation, but in the end, only three animals required it. 

“We did not lose any animals in direct relationship to the move,” he said. “We have lost some animals since; those were all individuals that were very old and had previously identified health issues like borderline renal failure, and we had predicted to lose them in the not-too-distant future.” 

The evacuation was the second in the zoo’s 91-year history. Flooding in 1969 forced the temporary removal of every animal and led to a redesign of the zoo grounds. 

Today Olson, the zoo veterinarian, is searching for grants to help rebuild the zoo, including the on-site veterinary clinic. The Minot Park District is also accepting individual donations, which may be made online.

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