Duluth veterinarian corrals zoo animals during flood

Polar bear breaks out, seals swim in street

June 22, 2012 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

Photo courtesy of Robert Cragin
Drs. Louise Beyea (left) and Rebecca Prosecky, both veterinarians with Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo, celebrate at 2 a.m. Thursday after moving bears displaced by flood waters. In the photo's background is Beyea's assistant, Gerry Krippner, RN, who aided their efforts.

When the telephone rang about 3 in the morning Wednesday, Dr. Louise Beyea answered. The unusual message: Seals were swimming in the street.

That call was the start of a 24-hour response and rescue effort by Beyea, local veterinarians and fellow staff of the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, Minn., where torrential rains caused flash flooding and forced hundreds to evacuate.  

Caught in the chaos were many of zoo's 400-plus inhabitants, including an escapee polar bear found outside the seal exhibit. Two of the seals that were supposed to be inside — a blind female named Feisty and another named Vivian — had swum out of their enclosures. 

Feisty was found on a road just outside the zoo's 16.5 acres. The Associated Press reported that a passerby guarded her with his car and kept his headlights on so she wouldn't get run over. Vivian was found 100 yards off zoo grounds near a torrent of rushing water.

Beyea, the zoo's veterinarian, recounted to the VIN News Service how she corralled one of the seals in near darkness and a downpour. 

"Vivian was really worked up," she said. "She's normally a very placid animal, and I draw blood on her with just manual restraint. Vivian was lunging and snapping at us. We were able to get a sweatshirt over her head, and I grabbed her rear flippers. We were able to subdue her, and put her in the back of the pickup."

Police then took Beyea through the zoo in a squad car looking for a female polar bear named Berlin. After finding the bear outside the seal enclosure, Beyea exited the vehicle with her dart gun, attempting to shoot and tranquilize the 450-pound animal. 

"I got out of the car, made the approach and shot the bear," Beyea said. "She turned and came towards us, and I got in the car and she started chasing the squad car. 

"It is astonishing when you work with these animals as they are so fast," she added. "They make dogs and cats look like they're moving in slow motion."

Beyea and several local veterinarians who'd come to help tranquilize other large, frightened animals in the zoo, performing medical care by the light of headlamps. Aggression is a natural reaction of scared animals, Beyea said, adding that the veterinarians performed so many procedures that additional medication had to be sought from nearby veterinary clinics. 

Some of the animals caught in the flood did not make it. Animals in the zoo's petting enclosure were hardest hit. A miniature horse swam to safety and three ducks survived, but 13 animals perished: a raven, a turkey vulture, a snowy owl, four dwarf goats, two baby lambs and their mother, a ram, another ewe and a miniature donkey.

"Coming on those bodies was very emotional," Beyea said Thursday. "You have to go on and function. I feel pretty numb today."

The flood arose from a creek that runs diagonally through the zoo's property and turned into a river. Although every creek in the county was overflowing at a similar speed, culverts located outside zoo property compounded the problem. Officials now are concerned about the integrity of the soils around zoo buildings that house the grizzly bear, Kodiak bear and lions and have relocated the animals to the zoo's veterinary hospital.

"We were worried about cave-ins. If water got that high again, (the animals) would have drowned in their holding area," Beyea said. "We took the safer route and got everyone out." 

Beyea described the flood waters as "incredibly muddy," noting that she had a difficult time getting a female river otter named Helen out of her pool. She recounted searching for animals in a dark aquatic enclosure full of water. 

"Things were tipped over. Freezers full of food were tipped over and floating," Beyea said, citing evidence that the flood waters rose almost two stories high. "We pointed head lamps on the wall, and the heating ducts have dirt and brooms and stuff on top of them so we know those things were floating at the top of the two-story ceiling."  

Beyea is concerned that two otters and two silver foxes might have acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a lung condition that leads to low oxygen levels in the blood. At the moment, none of the animals are showing any signs. 

"ARDS is very difficult to treat, even in a cooperative patient," Beyea said. "It would be a battle to treat in a wild animal. They are in the hospital right now, so it's difficult to assess their behavior. They are huddled and hiding." 

For now, many of the zoo's animals have been dispersed to various temporary homes and a local kennel. As for the polar bear and seals, they're staying at the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory in St. Paul, Minn.

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