Investigators: Escape at Duluth Zoo - My29 WFTC Minneapolis-St. Paul

Investigators: Escape at Duluth Zoo

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The day before the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth flooded, Kingsbury Creek was its usual placid self -- but by the time staff returned in the middle of the night, it had turned into a killer.

The high water killed 14 animals on June 20, and it came up so fast and so high that a seal named Feisty splashed her way out of captivity and onto a city street.

Anyone listening to the police scanner heard this initial report, saying, "You're not going to believe this. We are at the zoo and we have a wild animal lose in the middle of the road -- a seal, to be honest, in the middle of Grand Ave. I don't know if you could contact somebody from the zoo please?"

When zoo officials heard the seal had gotten out of her exhibit, that was the first indication that a nightmare scenario was unfolding. They suspected that if Feisty escaped, so did the polar bear.

The Lake Superior Zoo has an emergency plan to deal with disasters, but despite all the pre-planning, nobody ever anticipated there could be a flood that would bring water to heights that would allow the polar bear to swim up to the rocks surrounding its enclosure, let alone climb over them to freedom.

Yet, that is exactly what the 400-pound bear, Berlin, did. The massive polar bear hopped down onto the path normally reserved for humans before moving into the creek, which could have given her a path off of zoo grounds.

Zookeepers had two options: Shoot to kill or try and tranquilize her. They shot her with a tranquilizer dart, and it worked.

That doesn't mean the operation went smoothly, however. The bear -- angered by the sting of the dart -- took off in pursuit of a police squad car that was assisting zoo workers. It took about 20 minutes before she was actually sedated enough to be moved to safety.

Bears will sometimes play dead, so they used a second dart before picking her up with a skid loader.

After retrieving Berlin, officials pondered preparation again because they never expected a 9-inch rain fall -- and they didn't anticipate that a culvert downstream would become clogged with debris, turning the zoo into a lake; however, there was also no warning system in place to alert staff to an overnight escape either.

All of the zoos in Minnesota plan for the possibility that a dangerous animal might get away. In fact, they stage practice drills several times a year.

Como Zoo in St. Paul has security staff that stays on at night to monitor for severe weather. When it approaches, the most dangerous animals are moved into bunker-like shelters, which are more secure.

At the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, there's an alarm system on the fences surrounding the Siberian tigers. If a tree falls on the wire, staff automatically receive an emergency phone call alerting them that an exhibit has been compromised.

All zoos have employees on staff who are trained to shoot and kill if necessary to stop an animal that breaks free. Fortunately, escapes are rare.

The Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth is now open again, but the future of the flood-damaged polar bear exhibit is uncertain. One thing is sure to change: The zoo wants a better warning system in place that will help prevent any more escapes from happening.

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