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Calgary Zoo staff had to think fast during flood

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Six-and-a-half-year-old hippo Lobi explores the African Savannah building during the flooding on Sunday.

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Six-and-a-half-year-old hippo Lobi explores the African Savannah building during the flooding on Sunday.

CALGARY -- Staff risked their lives to stop a hippo from escaping and to usher ailing giraffes to dry ground during the recent flood, a Calgary Zoo spokesman said Tuesday.

"It was a cross between The Poseidon Adventure and Jurassic Park," said Jake Veasey, the zoo's director of animal care, conservation and research.

Veasey and other workers spent the weekend at the African Savannah exhibit juggling two challenges at once: moving shivering giraffes out of belly-deep water and securing an angry hippo that had escaped his holding area.

A glass window had to be broken for Veasey to get into a building to tend to the giraffes -- skittish creatures that don't cope well with cold and stress.

The building was so full of murky, brown water he had to don a wetsuit and swim to the back of the building to get to the giraffe enclosure.

At that point, the hippos were still where they were supposed to be, but, just in case, a shipping container was placed over a window that the hippos could have swam through.

Water levels eventually rose high enough for the dangerous herbivores to swim over the tops of their enclosure. Now they were able to move freely about the African Savannah building.

"There was the potential for the hippos to swim out of this building into a flooded zoo and potentially into the Bow River and we could have had hippos God knows where," said Veasey. "They could have been 20 or 30 miles downstream."

Veasey said the powerful beasts could have easily pushed through the glass front doors, so cinder blocks and construction equipment were put there to block their way.

One of the two hippos, an older female named Sparky, stayed put. But a younger male named Lobi was much more adventurous.

"He was having a whale of a time just exploring a much bigger hippo pool than he was used to."

The zookeepers had to live with the possibility Lobi could come closer. They had a high-calibre rifle handy just in case.

"They certainly kill more people in Africa than lions ever do. They're arguably the most dangerous African vertebrate," said Veasey, who could only tell where the hippo was by the rustling of debris.

At one point, Lobi managed to squeeze through a narrow door into a corridor and found himself stuck -- and furious.

"It's a human being door that you could never comprehend a hippo could go through."

Veasey and his team considered cutting out metal work to free the creature, but eventually built him a ramp made out of sandbags so he could climb over a bar and back to his enclosure.

Lobi did make it over -- his hippo hide squeaking against the metal -- and the crisis was over.

Most of the zoo's animals are currently crowded into facilities elsewhere on the property in less than ideal conditions.

"We're now dealing with problems that are going to start arising due to stress, due to confinement and the sooner that we can remediate exhibits to bring animals back into their home enclosures, we can relieve stress on the animals."


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2013 A10

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