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A police line closes off access to a footpath and a bridge that lead to the Calgary Zoo, Friday, June 21, 2013. Heavy rains have caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuations. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A police line closes off access to a footpath and a bridge that lead to the Calgary Zoo, Friday, June 21, 2013. Heavy rains have caused flooding, closed roads, and forced evacuations. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Calgary zookeepers risked lives to rescue giraffes, round up hippo Add to ...

Under the cover of high-powered rifles, Calgary Zoo staff were forced to swim through hippo-infested waters to rescue shivering giraffes – trapped in flood waters up to their stomachs – in the aftermath of the city’s massive floods.

With the water reaching as high as four metres in low-lying areas of the zoo, a massive cleanup is now required before dozens of evacuated animals can be returned to their homes or Canada’s second-largest zoo can reopen its doors. But as the waters rose late last week, the zoo’s two hippos escaped their enclosure, giving them free rein over the entire building.

“There was the potential for the hippos to swim out of this building, into a flooded zoo and potentially into the Bow River. We could have had hippos God knows where – they could have been 20 or 30 miles downstream,” said Jake Veasey, the director of animal care at the zoo.

While the older female stayed in her enclosure, the adventurous young bull named Lobi had “a whale of a time” in parts of the auditorium usually reserved for zoo visitors or staff, including a public gallery leading to a glass-door exit. Quick-moving zoo staff had placed a shipping container, a Bobcat construction vehicle and concrete blocks in the way of building exits to prevent his escape by Friday morning.

At that point, the hippos were prevented from going outside but still roamed about submerged in the muddy, debris-laden waters flooding the African Savannah building. But Dr. Veasey knew he still had to move the two cold, stressed giraffes – who had originally been left in place because their height meant there was no chance they would drown – located in the same building as the hippos.

Over the weekend, Dr. Veasey and colleagues spent hours wading and swimming through the building, trying to push the giraffes toward an exit. Chest deep in water at one point, they used picnic tables as shields.

“It was like a cross between the Poseidon Adventure and Jurassic Park,” he said. “It was one of the most surreal experiences.”

Their lives were also at risk. Hippos are considered the most dangerous animal in Africa and tranquilizer guns, which don’t work quickly, weren’t an option. Instead, they carried high-caliber rifles with them as they worked. Finally on Sunday, Lobi was captured by zoo staff when the waters began receding and he got caught in a narrow space in the back of the building.

The two giraffes were also rescued midday Sunday. But the flood and the move remains a traumatic event, especially for the older female named Carrie, Dr. Veasey said.

“We’re hopeful that the giraffes are going to pull through,” he said. But “I can’t guarantee that any of them are going to survive.”

As the floods hit, Dr. Veasey and his staff led the emergency evacuation of 160 zoo animals over a 10-hour period, performing a type of triage to decide what animals wouldn’t survive the flooding and needed to be evacuated. Half of the zoo’s mammals, along with a number of birds and reptiles, were transported up the hill to another zoo building.

Most of the zoo grounds are located on picturesque St. George’s Island in the Bow River, which was running at up to ten times its normal water flow at the peak of the floods last week. The quick-moving waters destroyed half-a-kilometre of zoo fencing, and eroded a berm and parts of the island away.

On Tuesday, several of 140 dead tilapia that zoo staff couldn’t save were still scattered on the muddy, wet floor of the giraffe and hippo building. Six piranhas and at least two of the zoo’s 12 peacocks also died in the flooding.

It will be at least two weeks before the zoo reopens its doors. Now the issue for staff is the long-term health of the animal refugees, stressed from the flood and now living in the tight quarters of their temporary shelter. Before they come home, electric fences must be mended, and damaged trees in danger of falling over must be removed so they never become escape routes for caged animals.

Clément Lanthier, the zoo’s president, said he’s received offers of help from across North America and Europe. In the days ahead, he will have to decide whether to relocate some of Calgary’s animals to other zoos.

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