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‘We were so lucky’

Zoo curator recalls evacuation of zoo and aftermath

Eloise Ogden/MDN Brandi Clark, right, Roosevelt Park Zoo curator, and Amanda Cone, lead outreach keeper, are shown with Fred and George, the zoo’s red pandas during a behavioral training session for the red pandas on May 26. Clark recalls the 2011 flood and what the zoo inhabitants and zoo staff went through.

Brandi Clark vividly remembers when Roosevelt Park Zoo was evacuated before the 2011 flood and the following time until the zoo reopened.

Clark, who has been with the zoo since 1992, started as a zookeeper. She’s now zoo curator.

She said staff had been attending Ward County Emergency Management meetings since the word was there was the possibility of a flood.

“Over the weekend we had heard that we would possibly flood,” she said. “Ron (Ron Merritt, Minot Parks superintendent) met with everybody park districtwide on that Tuesday after Memorial Day.” She said he told them they had to prepare because of the possibility of flooding.

“Dr. (Ann) Olson (zoo veterinarian), who was on staff at the time, had been planning for it in case because we knew that if we had to evacuate, how would we get most of these animals out of here?” Clark said.

MDN File Photo The new Visitors Center was just being built when the flood hit the area.

Clark said many animals are born at the zoo or transferred there and then live there for their entire lives. “They never have to leave and if they leave, they go to another zoo. We went through our list to see what we would need for crates and if we had crates available and what we would do. So we were prepared,” Clark said. She said they were prepared on paper but when the evacuation came they had to start working it.

“The fairgrounds were great enough to lend us all their panels like the ones they use for the horses in the barns. We were able to set up another zoo at the Ward County building (north of Minot),” she said.

She said many volunteers – “lots of staff, lots of friends” – came to help them. “We basically sent a crew up to the Ward County building to start building enclosures for all these animals. We had a nickname – we called it the North Zoo,” she said. “We told them what animals we were bringing up and needed them to build enclosures for them so we’d be prepared. So once we had them secured here we would transfer them up there,” she said.

She said they held on moving some animals because other North Dakota zoos had called, said they could take some species and were on their way to Minot to get them. “The great part was they called us – they were amazing. It was pretty fabulous,” she said. She said the other zoos cared for them the entire time.

By this time she said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was taking down the zoo’s perimeter fence. “That was pretty hard because that’s what keeps things out and keeps everything in,” she said.

MDN File Photo Flood waters entered the bear exhibit.

She said the zoo also has animals on zoo grounds that they don’t own and the loan agreements include information about making sure if anything happens to them detrimentally and/or physically, they have to be contacted.

“I bascially started at the top of the list and informed everybody of what was happening, what our plans were and asked them first, if they wanted animals returned to them because that’s their choice,” Clark said. She said some institutions wanted the animals. For example, she said the Minot zoo had trumpeter hornbills and the zoo that owned them took them back. “They housed them until we were back and then they sent them back to us which was great,” Clark said.

She said Terry Lincoln, director of Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, went ahead and contacted a friend of theirs, Jim Fouts, director of Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard, Kansas, and asked if Fouts had room for any animals “because he knew we were going to need some spaces for some large animals.”

She said Lincoln called and said he’d already called Fouts who said he would take the Minot zoo’s giraffes, zebras, all the cats, warthogs and hornbills.

“They also came and got the animals except for the cats. We loaded up the cats and took the cats ourselves,” she said.

“The hard part was there’s only so many people that can haul giraffes. I contacted three or four giraffe-hauling companies to see who could get here first so they could transport our giraffes safely. We had two that said they could come so we told them we don’t know if we’re going to flood tomorrow so please hurry,” Clark said.

“Someone had contacted Rolac Construction and Ron LaCount had his whole crew come down here and build a dike around the clinic just in case we couldn’t get the giraffes out. That’s where the giraffes were.

“It was amazing and honestly, I can’t even describe that day. So much was happening. You couldn’t be a part of everything but people just did what they needed and they did it,”

She said the hard part was everything was sold out in town because everybody was trying to move. “We were looking for boxes and we ended up buying laundry baskets and weird containers to put stuff in because everything was sold out,” she said.

“But anybody who came down and asked if we needed help, we said “yes” and we gave them a job to do. We had so many people helping us. It was amazing,” she said.

Moving animals

The zoo animals were caught and transferred to the North Zoo and the giraffes were kept secure at the zoo in Minot.

“Our bears were the only animals that we had to immobilize chemically,” she said. “The Como Zoo (in St. Paul, Minnesota) ended up taking them which was super great. The guy that took all our big cats transported them (the bears) for us because he had the crates for the bears.”

When this happened, she said the Como Zoo had just remodeled and made a new brown bear exhibit so the old brown bear exhibit was empty. “That worked out really great and the bears had a blast while they were there.” She said the Como Zoo put up signage saying, “Because of the flood, we’re here.” Afterward, she said people would tell them at the Minot zoo, “We saw your bears in Como Zoo.” She said the bears had so much fun because they had underwater viewing and when they went swimming they would see people. “They’d never done that before and were such good showoffs there because they had never been at a place like that,” Clark said.

The Minot zoo’s penguins also went to the Como Zoo.

Clark said some of the animals now at the Minot zoo, like the bears, giraffes and lions, are the same ones who went through the 2011 flood evacuation.

“We evacuated most of the animals that Tuesday and then that following Wednesday they came to pick up the bears and the giraffes. We counted it up – it took 36 hours for us to evacuate,” she said.

Clark said during this time some staff members were also moving out of their homes.

A first evacuation occurred in the city of Minot in late May 2011 but after about a week they heard it might not flood.

After the first evacuation it was decided to keep the animals at the North Zoo for awhile so they did not have to readjust again. “We decided everyone was doing fine, we have a system, we’re not ready to go back,” Clark said.

Then another evacuation took place in Minot in later June and the Souris River flooded.

Clark said one of the people on staff was in the National Guard and got called for duty. “I remember the night that we flooded he texted me and said, ‘I’m at the zoo right now and the water just went over the banks. It was just so sad thinking ‘Are we ever going to get back there?'” she said.

At North Zoo

The zoo staff now would be working at the North Zoo for awhile

“I think the hardest part when we did this was trying to get to the North Zoo. I remember one week I had to drive to Lake Darling just to get up there. You could either sit in line for two hours or drive. I was tired of sitting in line,” she said, referring to only one road – the West U.S. 83 Bypass – available to reach the north or south part of Minot.

She said they worked in shifts at the North Zoo. “For probably about two or three months we had 24-hour shifts because when we first moved up there we didn’t have security like here so two people stayed overnight. We had to sleep on cots. It’s kind of spooky sleeping under one roof with all those animals – something would be pawing or just the different noises under one roof,” she said.

Clark said not just zookeepers but the entire zoo staff worked at Zoo North so everyone had work and would not lose their jobs.

“We were just a phone call away if something happened. We never had an escape thank goodness. We had it down to a science but we didn’t have bathrooms up there so we had to get a plumber to come in and get us bathrooms and we had to get running water. We washed dishes in kiddypools for a long time until we got running water. We had to haul water for awhile and we didn’t save any of our hay because until it actually flooded we’d go down and grab hay. The hay barn had thousands of bales so we lost all that hay and had to buy hay after that,” she said. She said they had to rent a refrigerated truck for all their refrigerated goods and frozen goods.

When they needed to wash towels and other items used for the animals, she said they went to a laundromat in town but to save money they put up a clothes line for drying the washed items.

“The staff was amazing. We basically picked up from here and just started working up there. We did exactly everything that we do here but in a different environment – the training went on, the enrichment went on,” Clark said.

Sometimes people driving by the building north of Minot were caught by surprise when they saw zoo animals outside.

“People would call and say, ‘I was just driving on the way back from base and I saw some people riding camels’ because the camels we had then, we rode. We’d get on them and lead them around the building to give them exercise,” Clark said.

Zoo staff traveled between the zoo office now in the Minot Municipal Auditorium and Zoo North. Some of the outreach animals – chinchilla, some birds – were also at the zoo office.

“We took everything — from our knives, our containers — everything that we really used because we didn’t want to lose anything. That’s what Ron told us — ‘Take everything that you can,'” Clark recalled.

She has a list of when each animal was moved due to the upcoming flood and when it returned to the Minot zoo. For example, the alpaca left May 31 and returned in July 2012.

She said they had the reptiles at the Maysa Center and Minot State University took the axolotl.

Clark said local rancher Doug Woodall took the zoo’s bison. “He came and got our bison before the flood. He brought his panels, set them up and loaded them for us,” she said. After the flood, she said Woodall suggested that he loan bison to the zoo, which is done now. “The three adult bison are all owned by Doug Woodall and in the fall we send the calves back to him,” she said.

“We did end up donating some of our reptiles (tortoises and 12-foot boa) to Reptile Gardens in South Dakota,” she added.

Returning

to the zoo

It was about three weeks or so before zoo staff could go onto the zoo grounds. Clark said she remembers the weather was so hot.

“When we came back I think the hard part was there was so much soot everywhere. That was probably the worst. We saw how much soot and were thinking how is this even going to work?” she said. She said they found dead fish and other “strange things.” “It was weird,” she said.

She said all the buildings were redone. “The old zoo office was condemned. They condemned that building just because it was an older house anyway,” Clark said. The zoo office had been in that building. The current Visitors Center was just being built.

After the flood many people helped clean up the zoo. Clark said anywhere from two to 10 people in a group of military members from Minot Air Force Base came to the zoo every day to help. “They’d get off work and then they’d come down here and work. They brought their grill so they’d eat lunch here and they’d work. They were amazing,” she said.

“Some places we had anywhere from 2 to 8 inches of soot that had to be removed,” she said. She said a company came in to remove it. “But we were responsible for example for that 3-foot perimeter fence that would go round animal pens. We had to get that out,” she said.

Every day they would work on the clean up. “We’d have people taking care of the animals. When they got done, they would come down and we’d work as much as we could. Gosh, how lucky we were to reopen when we did,” she said.

She said they were able to move back to the zoo in summer 2012. Animals were being returned and the zoo reopened in spring 2013.

“We have learned so much especially about disasters and safety preparedness. We had warning. There’s some zoos that never had warning and lost animals because of that. How scary. We were very lucky we had time,” she said.

She said they now have crates in every building. “So if we were ever to have a disaster, they are ready to go,” she said.

She said the behavioral training program was created and now a lot of animals do different things including training for crating.

“We have changed so much. I feel that our animal healthcare program, our behaviorial training program, our enrichment – everything – it’s just night and day,” she said, adding, “We were so lucky.”

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