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Brandon Stahl, Forum Communications, Published June 30 2012

Animals on the loose: Tense hours at the zoo

DULUTH - As she arrived at a Lake Superior Zoo under water, veterinarian Louise Beyea feared it wasn’t just a polar bear outside its exhibit, but all three of the zoo’s bears.

“We thought we’d have to dart a bear or kill a bear,” she said. “It was pitch-black. We just couldn’t tell.”

Only a half-hour earlier on June 20, the situation hadn’t seemed as dire. After getting a call at 3 a.m. telling him a seal was outside zoo grounds, director of animal management Peter Pruett said he kept wondering: Could that even be real?

But when he pulled up on Grand Avenue just south of the zoo, there was Feisty. And he knew that with a seal out, Pruett said, “there was a good chance we were missing a polar bear.”

To make sure that was the case, he drove into the zoo to get as close as he could to the Polar Shores exhibit, from which the seal had escaped.

“It was all under water,” he said.

He called Beyea, lead zookeeper Maicie Sykes, and Zoological Society CEO Sam Maida, and asked them to call in more personnel. Then he retrieved a kickboard to help bring Feisty back into the zoo.

Pruett saw flooding on the south side of the zoo and suspected that a culvert — the same one that had flooded the zoo two years ago — was creating the flood. He asked police to call in someone to clear the culvert, then for spotlights to put on the floodplain.

“We had firefighters and officers scanning the area to see if we had a polar bear floating by,” he said.

With rains pouring down and streets already flooded out, “it was a miracle that I even got there,” said Beyea, who drove in from rural Superior.

She got her dart gun ready — only she and Pruett are trained to use it — and for a short time, the two said they considered taking a boat out onto the newly formed lake to find the bears before police talked them out of it.

Their first scare: a report of a lion spotted or heard near Grand Avenue. But it turned out to be the miniature horse, Darla.

“We were on high alert for dangerous carnivores,” Beyea said. “There could have been a bunny rabbit hopping across, and we probably would have said: Whoa!”

About that time, a team at the main zoo building could see that the dangerous cats were contained, so they turned their attention to moving the barnyard animals to higher ground. But when they got there, they found one of the yews floating in the water.

“At that point, we didn’t see any other barnyard animals,” Pruett said. “We hoped that they were just like Darla (the horse) and they were out moving around.”

Hunting for bear

Kingsbury Creek had essentially split the park in two: With waters raging, there was no way to cross directly from one side of the zoo to the other.

Pruett said the staff and police decided to split up. A zookeeper, security guard and police officers went to the main building’s tiger deck to try to spot the missing animals, while Pruett, Beyea and two officers went to the back of the zoo near the bear and wolf exhibits to ensure those perimeters were secure.

“We got a decent visual on the brown bears to make sure that exhibit wasn’t damaged to the point where they could get out,” Pruett said.

About 5 a.m., when dawn’s light was finally making it easier to see, lead zookeeper Sykes, who was on higher ground with binoculars, spotted the polar bear sitting on the rocks above her exhibit.

All Berlin had to do to reach the public walkway — straight toward water rushing to the St. Louis River, or the other way, toward people — was to take a quick hop down. Which is exactly what she did.

Where Berlin was standing “is a narrow corridor,” said Pruett, who was standing on the other side of the creek from Beyea.

“I told (Beyea): ‘If she’s moving down to snowy owl and that area, I don’t want you to take a shot, I don’t want you to try to dart her, because the first thing she’s going to do is try to turn around toward where that dart came from and run.”

Beyea said the other fear was that Berlin would get hit with the tranquilizer, run into the water and drown.

By the time Beyea and the police officer accompanying her got 27 to 30 feet from Berlin, the culvert must have become unblocked, and the water level quickly dropped several feet. Berlin started moving toward Kingsbury.

“I said, ‘Louise, you have to take a shot; we can’t afford to have her get swept away in the current,’ ” Pruett said.

Beyea ran up a behind a set of rocks near the Polar Shores exhibit, took a breath, and shot.

It was a bullseye — right in the rump.

And then she and the officer turned around and ran.

“Berlin woofed, she alerted, she knew where that shot came from, and I knew I had to get the dickens back to that car,” Beyea said. “Either I was far enough from the bear, or my adrenaline kicked in and I was able to run and get back to the squad car before the bear overtook me.”

Berlin chased the squad car as Beyea and the officer drove to a nearby flagpole gate. They eventually stopped near the main building and solar-charging station.

Berlin went down but was still blinking.

By that time, Pruett had reached Beyea’s location. They gave the bear a second sedative and waited longer.

“During all that time, we had (an officer) there with a weapon trained on Berlin,” Pruett said.

“It seemed forever to me,” Beyea said.

When the female polar bear was finally fully sedated, they used a skid-loader to put her into a back of a pickup truck and take her to a quarantine area at a high point on the zoo.

Then it was time to go rescue the other seal, Vivian, who was found by a passerby near the formerly blocked culvert south of Grand Avenue.

Vivian 'extremely aggressive'

Beyea said it took about four people to wrestle Vivian into the back of a pick-up truck, with one of the zookeepers wrapping her sweater around the 200-pound seal’s head to decrease visual stimulation and hold onto her.

“She’s normally pretty calm,” Beyea said. “But she wasn’t then. She was extremely aggressive. And they can deliver a really nasty bite.”

Soon after, security guard Bradley Jago found the rest of the barnyard animals — drowned near a culvert in the south part of the zoo.

In total, 13 animals were found drowned: six sheep, four goats, a donkey and two birds: a turkey vulture and a snowy owl. The zoo’s raven wasn’t found and might have flown away.

Despite the deaths, Pruett praised the zoo’s response to the flood, and said the number of animals killed could have been far higher.

“It was an amazing crew that did an amazing job,” Pruett said. “We had two harbor seals out and a polar bear. I’ve worked in the zoo business for 12-plus years, and I’ve never had anything close to a polar bear escape.”

Beyea agreed.

“The gods were with us that morning,” she said. “Everything couldn’t have gone better, in retrospect.”