Elena Khalar, zookeeper, works with a 35-year-old blue and gold macaw, in a hallway at the veterinary clinic at Happy Hollow Park and Zoo in San Jose, on Monday. Last month’s flooding of Coyote Creek caused the evacuation of many of the the animals that were living in the lower sections of the zoo property. As clean up continues, some birds, like this one, are still living in temporary lodgings around the zoo. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group)
Six meerkats are back home this week in their exhibit at Happy Hollow Zoo after the perky mongoose-like creatures made famous by Disney’s “Lion King” spent the last month bunking in one of the more creative shelters for animals displaced by San Jose’s destructive flood: the bathroom of the zoo’s veterinary clinic.
In a modern-day version of the Noah’s Ark story, zoo officials raced to move the meerkats and 36 other animals to higher ground as waters from Coyote Creek rose in a drenching storm during the days leading up to the city’s Feb. 21 floods.
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“We taped up the toilet and put their toys in there with them,” said zoo director Valerie Riegel. “We told the custodial crew, ‘Don’t go in there. We’ll clean it.’”
Zoo officials moved turkey vultures, a jaguar, lemurs, red pandas, foxes, and a host of other critters to temporary quarters, from the veterinary building to the education center, saving them from the floodwaters. They even moved fish from the koi pond and birds from the aviary. Not a single animal escaped or was injured.
Now the zoo faces tens of thousands of dollars in costs. Volunteers and staff members have been pressure washing, steam cleaning and scrubbing the Lower Zoo, where floodwaters 4 feet deep poured in on the morning of the flood — the city’s worst in 20 years. But refrigerators were ruined, and storage sheds and buildings sustained damage, and equipment was lost. The zoo’s bee aviary, which raises $15,000 a year in honey sales to help support rangers who protect mountain gorillas at Virunga National Park in the Congo from poachers, also was heavily damaged.
As the cleanup continues, a jaguar named Sophia is living in a holding area in the zoo’s quarantine building. Four squirrel monkeys named Dot, Mel, Mia and Lil are housed in a pen behind the education center. Sarge, a blue and gold Macaw, and Ulysses, a silver crested cockatoo, are living in the veterinary building.
“We got pretty creative,” said Riegel. “We found space for everybody.”
San Jose city leaders have come under criticism for not evacuating people in the nearby Rock Springs neighborhood, and other areas, until Tuesday when residents needed to be rescued in boats from their homes. But zoo officials weren’t caught off-guard.
As the storms worsened, Riegel was so concerned that she ordered the animals moved two days early, on Sunday before the Tuesday morning flood. She slept at the zoo in an office on Monday night.
For nearly a month, six meerkats, African members of the mongoose family, had to be moved to a bathroom in a veterinary clinic at Happy Hollow Zoo by zookeepers when the Lower Zoo area was damaged in waters nearly four feet deep during the Feb. 21 Coyote Creek Flood. The meerkats are now back in their regular exhibit. (Courtesy of Happy Hollow Zoo)
“There was a point where I thought, maybe it’s not going to flood,” she said. “But then we saw the water, moving, dark brown, like really strong coffee. It’s amazing to see the amount of force it had. The gates sprung open, there were logs and debris floating all around.”
Some flood victims have complained that San Jose city officials evacuated the animals at the zoo before people.
But Riegel said city officials had nothing to do with the evacuation at the zoo, even though the zoo is owned by the city. Rather, she said, she was closely monitoring the National Weather Service forecast, and projected stream levels on Coyote Creek on the NOAA website on her own. The zoo has a flood evacuation plan, she noted, a document required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of its permit, and she was on its staff in 1997 when floods caused similar, although lesser, damage to the zoo.
“We started sandbagging, moving animals from the low-lying areas, moving equipment,” she said. “It’s never something you take lightly. When the water started to rise, it was like we have to move. Let’s get going.”
David Vossbrink, a city spokesman, also said no city officials contacted the zoo to order evacuations.
“As a close neighbor of the creek, Happy Hollow Zoo has had a lot of experience with high water over the years,” he said. “It was entirely a zoo operation. They were not part of our emergency operations center or our planning.”
On Monday, Riegel pointed to a chain-link fence with barbed wire on top that runs along the zoo’s perimeter near Coyote Creek.
“You can see the pine needles in the barbed wire,” she said. “That’s how high the water got. That fence is 8 feet high.”
The meerkats were able to return this weekend back to their regular exhibit, and all are healthy. But 20 other animals remain in makeshift quarters, and the Lower Zoo area remains closed to the public — although the rest of the zoo is open.
Riegel said the zoo, which opened in 1961 after being founded by the San Jose Jaycees, needs cash donations from the public to help pay for cleanup costs, new equipment and lost revenue from the week that the zoo was completely closed. Donations can be made through its website, at www.hhpz.org.