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Brandon Stahl, Forum Communications, Published June 30 2012

Zoo deaths bring security concerns to light

DULUTH - No one knows whether three hours could have made a difference to the animals that died in flash flooding 11 days ago at the Lake Superior Zoo, but that’s how much time passed between the sounding of an alarm at the Polar Shores exhibit and the time zoo officials knew they had a serious problem.

The alarm sounded at midnight in the midst of a torrential rain. Following protocol, the zoo’s security company notified Peter Pruett, director of animal management. Protocol next called for the security company to contact Duluth police and have them go to the zoo and check on the exhibit.

But the police never got there.

Meanwhile, the downpour, combined with a plugged culvert, caused the zoo’s concave landscape to fill like a bowl. At 3 a.m., Pruett was notified that a seal had escaped. Soon he would learn that the polar bear and other zoo were also free, and as many as 14 animals had drowned.

The revelations point to a security problem at the zoo, Pruett and other zoo staff members past and present told the News Tribune last week. The lack of 24-hour security has been a problem in the past, zoo staff said, and may also be a violation of policies set out by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Until late last week, night security at the zoo has involved zoo guards patrolling the grounds until 10 p.m.

But unfettered access to the zoo along a creek that flows into the zoo has allowed trespassers to get in and throw objects at animals overnight and, without surveillance cameras or 24-hour security guards on site, no one has caught the offenders, staff members said.

On the night of the flood, having a security guard on site would have meant quicker intervention, they said.

“If there would have been somebody here to tell us there was a problem, someone would have been here sooner,” said lead zookeeper Maicie Sykes.

Sykes, Pruett and other employees said that for at least the last three years they’ve tried to persuade Zoological Society CEO Sam Maida to add 24-hour security and cameras and a way to completely secure the zoo’s perimeter.

Pruett cited the lack of a guard on zoo grounds the night of the flood as the reason for multiple communication failures. Instead of having a police officer check on the Polar Shores alarm, a guard could have gone to it, he said.

“With a person on grounds, there would never be a mistake if an alarm goes off,” said Pruett.

On Friday, after the News Tribune began interviewing for this story, Maida said he had hired a security company to provide 24-hour coverage for the zoo. He said he had already planned to do that later in July.

“We just accelerated that process,” he said.

When the zoo was reaccredited in 2011, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums criticized the zoo’s security and said it “had a naïve approach to safety.”

Maida acknowledged earlier in the week, before the hiring of 24-hour security, that the zoo’s security needed to be improved. He said zoo staff also plans to add cameras and block the public’s access to the park after hours.

However, he said, the zoo’s security status must be viewed in the context of its recent history.

When management of the zoo was transferred from the city to the nonprofit Lake Superior Zoological Society three years ago, he said, the financially beleaguered zoo was in danger of closing. The few resources they had were poured into animal care, Maida said.

Could lives have been saved?

Even if a security guard had been on site the night of the flood, Maida said, it’s no guarantee that six sheep, four goats, a donkey, a turkey vulture and a snowy owl that were found drowned could have been saved. The flooding could have become so severe so quickly, he said, it might have been dangerous to send someone onto the grounds.

Louise Beyea, zoo veterinarian, and lead zookeeper Sykes agreed.

No one knows how quickly the zoo turned into “an instant lake,” Beyea said,

“I am not confident that, even had we been here to realize what the problem was, that we could have safely saved the farm animals,” Beyea said, “given that it was an incredible amount of water coming down the creek and it was pitch-black. I would have been very hesitant to ask any staff to risk their life.”

“We may have lost a (human) life,” Maida said.

Because the floodwaters rose so rapidly, Pruett said, he’s sure that the birds would have died and the seals and polar bear would have gotten out no matter how quick the response.

But he said it was possible the animals in the barnyard might have been saved.

“I honestly don’t know. We would have been able to react a lot quicker,” Pruett said. “It would have been something as simple as opening the gates and letting them run free. I’m not too worried about a goat running free on zoo grounds. I would have liked to think that we could save them.”

No followup to alarm

Several doors at the zoo are rigged with alarm sensors, Pruett said, and on the dozens of occasions those sensors have been triggered, it’s been a false alarm.

When a sensor was triggered at the Polar Shores exhibit at midnight June 19, Pruett said he did what he always does when the alarm company calls him.

“(I asked), Is this a priority? And they said, ‘Police have been dispatched, and if it’s an emergency they will call you,’ ” said Pruett, who was the zoo’s curator for two years before taking his current position. Before that he worked at Zoo Atlanta.

Pruett said he stayed awake for about a half-hour, never heard from the company or police, and went back to sleep.

According to dispatch records, the security company at first tried to find someone with a key to the zoo, said Patsy Kingsley, communications supervisor for St. Louis County.

Without a key, police can’t get into the zoo, said Duluth police spokesman Jim Hansen, and instead can only check the main building and look into the grounds through the fence.

“Otherwise, there’s no way for us to get in,” he said.

Pruett said he wasn’t aware that police needed a key to the zoo, and he wasn’t asked about giving access to anyone.

Meanwhile, police were overwhelmed with calls from all over the city of stranded motorists, washed-out roads and flooding of the Interstate 35 tunnels.

About five minutes after getting the alarm call, the next dispatch record regarding the zoo alarm said: “Squads are unable to respond.”

Kingsley said police were never sent to the zoo.

About 3 a.m., one of the zoo’s seals, Feisty, was found by passersby on Grand Avenue, who called police. A Duluth police officer called zoo security guard Bradley Jago.

Jago called Pruett, who called 911 and headed for the zoo, which is about 10 minutes from where he lives. After that, it was, by all accounts, several hours of chaos, relief and heartbreak. The two seals that had swum or were washed off the grounds through a culvert were recovered, and the polar bear was located and safely subdued.

'We assumed it was fixed'

In 2010, a culvert south of the zoo became clogged, filling up part of the zoo and causing $70,000 in damage to the Polar Shores exhibit and the zoo playground.

It was probably the same culvert that got blocked June 19, filling the zoo like a bathtub before the force of the water washed the culvert away — leaving a stretch of railroad tracks dangling over the gully that remains.

Asked why, with rains far worse than those in 2010, no one from the zoo responded before 3 a.m., Maida, who lives about a half-mile from the zoo, said he didn’t know the rain would go on as long as it did.

“The event wasn’t fore-cast,” he said. “Into the evening, the last reports were things were relatively normal. … If I was awake at midnight, and I had some kind of inkling that things could get serious, yeah, I would have been over here. Absolutely.”

Pruett said he didn’t think another flood was possible because he believed the culvert had been repaired. He also said he got a call from a security guard at 10 p.m. right before he left the grounds saying the water from Kingsbury Creek was above its banks, but still lower than during snow melts.

“We all assumed (the culvert) had been fixed,” Pruett said. “If that obstruction did not occur, we would not have lost the barnyard animals.”

Maida said investigators with the city and the railroad are still looking into what caused the blockage.

Security 'must be provided'

Before the flood, zoo management had been working toward getting surveillance cameras, Maida said, and had already increased the hours that security guards are on site. But he said security at the time of the flood was compliant with standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the zoo after a thorough evaluation.

The AZA policy states: “Adequate security system must be provided on a 24-hour, year-round basis,” but it allows wiggle room for zoos that can’t comply with that standard.

“Every attempt should be made to provide direct security when the institution is closed to the visiting public,” according to the policy. “If it is impractical to provide security personnel, the Commission may approve the use of electronic systems or other security measures.”

Maida said the zoo told the AZA that it would get security cameras to comply with that requirement, “and they were fine with that.” He said there were plans earlier this year to install cameras, but a decision was made to hold off until later this year.

AZA spokesman Steve Feldman said his group doesn’t count the number of zoos with 24-hour security or cameras, but he said most small zoos don’t have overnight personnel on site.

“They may depend on police for that,” Feldman said.

Maida said the Zoological Society has made many security improvements since it took over management from the city. Shortly after the takeover, it lost its city-employed security guards and for a while had no security on site. Now it has on-site security from early afternoon to about 10 p.m.

That security change, along with others, was made when the zoo was reaccredited last year, when AZA inspectors cited the zoo’s “weak” security coverage after 7 p.m. as a “minor concern,” while saying the zoo had a “naïve approach to safety” in its approach to using safety protocols and locking doors.

“If it’s a concern, you address that concern. We knew it was a concern, too,” Maida said. “It’s not something you just put on the shelf. We made the choices that needed to be made based on the resources available and the priority of needs.”

Creek access a 'major concern'

The AZA listed the entry area along Kingsbury Creek as a “major concern,” as it makes the zoo “vulnerable to easy access into the zoo by animals and humans and easy egress for escaped animals out of the zoo.”

Maida said the zoo has proposed sealing the access area, but those plans have been delayed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the creek.

The DNR received an application in February from the zoo with several proposals to restrict access to that area, said Patty Fowler, an area hydrologist with the DNR who is working with the zoo on the application.

The proposals weren’t rejected, but instead are still being reviewed, said Fowler, who denied that the delays are due to the DNR.

“We’re working with them toward a solution that meets with the zoo’s objectives,” she said.

“If it’s not a complete application, then it does take time,” she said.

Maida said he and the zoo’s staff will also review their response to last week’s flood and look for ways to improve their operations.

“Are we ever going to get another 500-year flood? That’s not the point,” he said. “We’re going to look at what worked, what didn’t work, and where the communications, if they broke down, where are those?

“We will try to get zoo back on its feet,” he added. That’s a great deal of responsibility for us here. And we accept our responsibilities.”

Brandon Stahl writes for the Duluth News Tribune