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The Globe and Mail

After the flood, Calgary Zoo faces daunting, costly task of rebuilding

Jennifer Long feeds the Calgary Zoo’s pink flamingos in a holding pen on July 9, 2013, after they lost their enclosure in the city’s floods.

TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

In a deep, plastic wading pool, lions Baruti and Aslan find a reprieve from the summer heat and the boredom of their small, temporary quarters.

Calgary zookeeper Ryan Ball has filled the blue pool and thrown in toys including a log, tires and a giant spool. The 180-kilogram adolescent males take turns leaning over the side of the pool, splashing in the cold water, and using their front paws and teeth to fish the items out and onto the floor of their cage.

"It gives them something to work around, and to use their minds," Mr. Ball said, watching from outside the cage. "They need to get some energy out."

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Located on an island at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, the Calgary Zoo was hit hard last month by flood waters that covered its grounds, streamed into buildings and forced the evacuation of 160 animals. Some animals at the largest zoo in Western Canada have returned to their regular enclosures, but others, including the lions, are still in their temporary cages.

The cleaning has begun at the main zoo grounds on St. George's Island, but it is still a muddied construction zone. Many buildings require massive refurbishments, and at least two will be razed. Thirty-four homeless animals, including giant anteaters, sloths and condors, will have to be shipped to other zoos in the days ahead.

And now that the animals are safe, the financial implications of the flood are coming to the fore.

It will take $50-million to rebuild the facilities, and every day the doors are closed, tens of thousands more in revenue is lost. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says he is "really concerned" that the zoo is missing the peak summer months. More than half its staff have been laid off, and the zoo will not begin its staged reopening until July 31. It will be the end of November before visitors have full access to the grounds.

"Last year, we were the most visited zoo in Canada – 1.45 million visitors," said Clément Lanthier, president and chief executive of the zoo. "This year, now, we're struggling. We'll be struggling just to make it to Easter."

Although the non-profit organization that runs the zoo gets a small portion of its funding from the city, it makes more than 80 per cent of its revenues from parking fees, admission, concession and souvenir sales, and high-end catered events – Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge dined on the zoo grounds during their 2011 tour of Alberta. But after the flood, 120 summer weddings had to be moved.

"Our ice cream machines are destroyed," Dr. Lanthier said. "And they're very expensive."

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While the Calgary Stampede was able to move millions of kilograms of dirt within days to get the 10-day show up and running before the horses, bulls and other animals arrived, the zoo does not have such deep pockets, and must work around hundreds of animals already stressed by the flood.

But the 84-year-old Calgary institution is determined to press ahead. Dr. Lanthier is going to be looking for millions to keep the zoo open and continue animal programs such as captive breeding of endangered Western Canadian species. Calgary companies have stepped up with donations, and Dr. Lanthier said insurance will pay some costs.

"The money will come from a variety of sources," he said. "We would like to get some support from the government, because what we do – here at the zoo – I think it's phenomenal in terms of how we connect kids with nature."

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