Big Problems in a Small Setting: Flash Flood at the Lake Superior Zoo
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2013
Louise M. Beyea, DVM
Lake Superior Zoo, Duluth, MN, USA


Environmental disasters present unpredictable challenges to zoological parks regardless of institutional size. In the past, facilities accredited by The Association of Zoos and Aquariums were required to complete written emergency plans and to conduct emergency drills.1 As of this year, the United States Department of Agriculture requires its licensed facilities to produce emergency plans to cover any unexpected situation that interrupts normal animal care activities.2 Many zoos and animal exhibiting facilities that did not have contingency plans are now faced with the legal requirement to be prepared for a major disaster despite their small size, small budgets, and limited staff.

Zoological facilities that have experienced and survived a disaster can serve as valuable resources to other institutions that are developing disaster plans, or recovering from a disaster.

The Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, MN, is a 16-acre parcel perched at the base of a rocky hillside. A brook trout stream bisects the landscape. Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes were not in the zoo’s disaster plan. Neither was a flash flood.

In June 2012, a torrential downpour of at least 8 inches of rain fell on the Duluth area in less than 12 h. Flash flood alerts were issued for low lying areas. Given the slope and elevation of the land, flooding was not considered to be a high risk. But what happens downstream can flow upstream.

A mucky torrent of water displacing boulders the size of refrigerators sped through the zoo. At about 2 a.m., the violent creek quickly became a swirling 14-foot-deep lake when a railroad culvert downstream from the zoo failed. The zoo’s animal care director became aware of the problem after a passing motorist found one of the zoo’s harbor seals sliding along the street next to the zoo.

Key animal care employees were summoned and began to work in the sodden darkness to respond to the unfolding disaster.

What followed in the next 20 h included the successful darting and capture of the zoo’s polar bear which had swum out of her enclosure and was meandering on the zoo grounds; the capture of two harbor seals that were able to swim off grounds; the on-site relocation of three lions and two brown bears; the relocation of three marine mammals to another facility; and the recovery of the bodies of 14 animals that perished in the flood.

A crisis of this magnitude will quickly reveal your organization’s strengths. More importantly, it will starkly reveal your organization’s weaknesses.

The aftermath of this disaster showed us that there were things we had done right and things we had done wrong. Some things were out of our control. And in some cases, we just got incredibly lucky.

Things we did correctly included:

  • Writing contingency plans for weather emergencies
  • Conducting multiple drills to deal with escaped animals, including dangerous carnivores
  • Training animal care team members in firearm safety
  • Replacing inadequate darting equipment with a long-range darting gun
  • Stocking an emergency escape kit to be used for dangerous carnivore capture with an easy-to-use drug protocol

Things we did incorrectly included:

  • Lack of 24-h security
  • Lack of a “telephone tree”
  • No previous arrangements for off-site housing of animals
  • No crisis communication plan
  • Poor communication between zoo leadership and animal care team
  • No previous involvement of public safety personnel in zoo emergency training

Things that were out of our control included:

  • Continued rain after initial crisis
  • Widespread flooding in the Minnesota/Wisconsin area “diluted” resources

Ways we got lucky included:

  • Neighboring zoos initiated offers of help
  • Local veterinary clinics immediately honored requests for controlled drugs and animal housing
  • Dangerous large carnivore was safely contained, did not have to “shoot to kill”
  • Polar bear didn’t catch the veterinarian and didn’t damage the fleeing police car
  • Harbor seals didn’t swim to Lake Superior
  • Excellent community response with food, personal supplies, cleaning up, etc.
  • Helpful press coverage
  • Grief counseling services were donated

Well-thought-out contingency plans, drills, proper equipment and adequate facilities are important tangible parts of disaster response. Just as important, intangible assets such as flexible leaders who can think on their feet, the energy and stamina of youth, and the community’s bond to a zoo play important roles in response and initial recovery from an unforeseen event.


The Lake Superior Zoo graciously acknowledges the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, The Wildcat Sanctuary, Northland Spay/Neuter, Superior Animal Hospital, Great Lakes Aquarium, Duluth Police and Fire Departments, hundreds of community volunteers, and many zoos across the country that donated to flood relief efforts.

Literature Cited

1.  Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 2013. The Accreditation Standards and Related Policies. 11.2.5

2.  United States Department of Agriculture. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 2012. Handling of Animals; Contingency Plans. Section 2.134.


Speaker Information
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Louise M. Beyea, DVM
Lake Superior Zoo
Duluth, MN, USA

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