Candle-powered flying paper lanterns allegedly caused the fire. But inadequate attention to fire safety caused the deaths.
KREFIELD, Germany––A fire that killed more than 30 apes, monkeys, bats and birds at the Krefeld Zoo in the first minutes of 2020 apparently began when one or more flying cylindrical paper lanterns propelled by small votive candles landed on the roof of the building.
But launching the lanterns, mindless though it was, was not why the animals died. The Krefeld Zoo itself must answer for that.
One silverback & family survived
Lifted like miniature hot air balloons by the heat from the candles, the 13-inch-high lanterns were apparently released at midnight to celebrate the coming of the New Year.
“People reported seeing those sky lanterns flying at low altitude near the zoo and then it started burning,” Krefeld police chief Gerd Hoppmann told media.
Police and firefighters began receiving emergency calls at 12:38 a.m., Hoppman said.
The dozen fire engines and other emergency vehicles at the Krefeld fire house were only two miles away, but arrived in time to help rescue only Bally, a 40-year-old female chimpanzee, and Limbo, a younger male chimp. Both were badly burned.
The Krefeld Zoo silverback western lowland gorilla Kidoga, and six other members of his family, housed nearby in a separate Gorilla Garden, also survived.
Flying paper lanterns banned since 2009
Flying paper lanterns, banned as a fire hazard in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia since 2009, are customarily launched on festive occasions in parts of Asia, especially Thailand. Notes are often written inside them, expressing wishes or messages to the deceased.
Hoppmann said messages were found on some lanterns that did not entirely burn. The messages may help police to establish who released the burning lanterns, where. Several people have reportedly been questioned after admitting to releasing lanterns nearby, but Hoppmann indicated that further investigation would be done before anyone is criminally charged.
Merely releasing a burning lantern may be punished by a fine of up to 1,000 euros, worth $1,121 in U.S. dollars. A charge of arson or malicious mischief would carry more severe penalties.
100 miles from nearest possibly safe launch location
Lantern launches are traditionally intended to drift out over open water. The Krefeld Zoo is almost in the middle of the city of Krefeld, near the German border with the Netherlands, and is more than a mile from the Rhine River, which at that point is only 1,000 feet across.
The North Sea, the nearest body of open water, is more than 100 miles to the west.
Among the deceased animals, Krefeld zoo director Wolfgang Dressen said, were “highly endangered primates like orangutans from Borneo, lowland gorillas from Central Africa and chimpanzees from West Africa.”
Five orangutans, Charlie the chimpanzee, and Massa, a 48-year-old silverback western lowland gorilla, along with Boma, his mate, were known to have been killed.
But had the roof of the primate house been covered with sheet metal instead of thatch, with a ceiling made from fire-retardant fiberglas, a heat-activated interior sprinkler system, strategically situated hoses and hydrants, effective alarms, and a vigilant staff on duty during one of the most dangerous nights for animal facilities of each and every year, every animal might have been saved.
Zookeepers around the globe, especially in Germany, supposedly learned a lot about defending zoos from flying incendiary devices during World War II, but––while remembered in other still war-torn parts of the world, those lessons appear to have been forgotten when the Krefeld Zoo was built in 1975, 30 years after Allied bombing raids ended with the Nazi surrender on May 8, 1945.
Among the most important lessons: never construct the roofs of animal housing with flammable material, such as thatch.
No firebreaks, limited access, no sprinklers?!
The Krefeld Zoo fire most likely burned from the thatched primate house roof down. Flaming pieces of roof would then have ignited anything that could burn below, while the blazing ceilings kept animals from climbing out.
Another lesson: keep highly flammable foliage from overhanging animal housing. Any type of animal housing should be surrounded by firebreaks, such as roads or paths.
The Krefeld Zoo primate house had dense tree cover overhanging almost the length of the building on either side.
Still another critical lesson: always have a working overhead sprinkler system that triggers automatically when needed, and fire alarms that sound where someone is listening.
ANIMALS 24-7––whose editors include both a former police officer and a former firefighter––saw no hint in photos of the fire and fire damage that the Krefeld Zoo primate house even had a sprinkler system.
Yet another key lesson: keep high-pressure hoses connected to fire hydrants in freeze-proof kiosks outside of zoo buildings, not inside where they may be inaccessible to keepers in event of fire.
Typically zoos use pressure hoses suitable for firefighting to clean the concrete floors of animal quarters. If hoses are outside, used to rinse feces into an internal gutter, they can do double duty in case of fire.
Fire extinguishers should be readily accessible on all sides of animal housing. Essential in event of fire, fire extinguishers are also the quickest, safest means of interrupting a fight among dangerous animals or an attack on a visitor or keeper.
Fire drills are not a mandrill subspecies!
Not least of note, fire drills should be part of the ongoing practice-and-training routine at any animal facility or public institution.
Video of the Krefeld Zoo fire shows firefighters running with unconnected hoses, instead of laying down hoses already linked to hydrants, pumps, and water tender trucks, spraying as they ran; presumed nozzle handlers without second and third hose handlers to hold the hoses while the nozzle handlers aimed; water tanks being carried to the fire when truck-mounted water cannon should have already been knocking down the flames to give rescuers with water packs or canisters access; no sign of trucks near the building, possibly because access was blocked; and a considerable amount of apparently aimless running around, possibly looking for hydrants that either were not there or were inadequately located on emergency response maps.
Or were there no emergency response maps?
Hitler built bomb shelter for Berlin Zoo
German zookeepers in particular should have ingrained institutional awareness about fire prevention and firefighting. Nearly every zoo in Germany survived fires during World War II, beginning when a Berlin Zoo elephant on August 26, 1940 became the first casualty, animal or human, of an Allied bombing raid over the German capital city.
Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler responded by ordering that a concrete anti-aircraft flak tower be built beside the zoo, with a bomb shelter big enough to hold the entire zoo menagerie, or 15,000 people.
The shelter did save about 10,000 German troops from the Soviet and Polish invasion of Berlin in August 1945, but did not help the animals much.
Of the Berlin Zoo animal inventory of 3,715 when the war began, including nine elephants, only 90 animals and one elephant, named Siam, survived the fighting.
Seven other elephants were casualties of bombing raids in 1944.
Siam, transported to Berlin at age two in 1923, died in 1947 from enteritis, a probable consequence of poor diet during the war years.
200 Australian zoo animals survived wildfire
On the far side of the world, wildfires that had already burned more than 10 million acres, killing as much as half of the Australian koala population and multi-millions of other wild animals, on December 30-31, 2019 over-ran the village of Mogo, New South Wales.
Many of the 200 human residents of Mogo barely escaped with their lives, but the 200 animals at the Mogo Wildlife Park reportedly survived without a casualty.
“Due to the amazing staff here, and a well-executed plan, no one is hurt. Not a single animal was lost,” Mogo Wildlife Park director Chad Staples told Guardian correspondent Ben Smee.
“What we did with the dangerous animals – lions, tigers, orangutans – is we encouraged them to go to their night dens, kept them calm, like nothing was happening, and we were able to protect them on site,” Staples explained.
“The only animals among whom we saw any signs of stress were the giraffe and zebra at a couple of points,” Staples added.
“No one is hurt, not a single animal”
Animals without fireproof night dens were taken home by staff.
“Right now, in my house, there are animals of all descriptions in all the different rooms so that they’re safe and protected,” Staples told the Australian Broadcasting Company.
“No one is hurt, not a single animal,” Staples said.
Staples himself housed “several species of small monkeys and some of the pandas,” while “another staffer is keeping a tiger,” a spokeswoman for Featherdale Wildlife, owner of the Mogo Wildlife Park, told a BBC reporter.
The Illawarra Mercury newspaper reported that during the preceding week, as the wildfires ravaged coastal forests throughout Victoria and New South Wales states, the Mogo Wildlife Park staff worked out the details of their evacuation-and-shelter-in-place plans, and kept the zoo buildings and surroundings hosed down to stop flying sparks.
1993 Los Angeles wildfires warned U.S. wildlife keepers
The international zoo community has had much previous experience with fire, mostly fires which––like the wildfires in Australia––sweep in from outside.
Brush fires racing over the mountains east of Los Angeles and San Diego in October 1993 furnished a dramatic heads-up to U.S. zookeepers.
The then-financially troubled Eaton Canyon Nature Center, in Altadena, northeast of Los Angeles, barely survived Los Angeles County budget cuts only to be annihilated on October 26, 1993 early in the series of firestorms. About 40 snakes, birds, and tortoises perished.
The fires also hit the Animal Actors of Hollywood rescue ranch. Then-Ventura County director of animal regulation Kathy Jenks led a team who successfully “moved llamas, moved cattle, horses, and donkeys, moved pigs, moved two elephants and lions and tigers,” she recalled for Maria LaGanga of the Los Angeles Times. But a panic-stricken young panther and a lioness were shot because they couldn’t be handled safely with the equipment available.
San Diego Wild Animal Park stood off wildfires––twice!
The Condominium, the raptor breeding center belonging to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, was also evacuated––including 26 highly endangered California condors and four Andean condors. Seven hundred firefighters battled the blaze right at the Wild Animal Park fence, using the parking lot as their command post.
The park, a satellite of the San Diego Zoo, home to about 3,500 animals, was saved after a day-long struggle, largely because the parking lot and surrounding work roads formed effective fire breaks, and the animal housing had been built with surviving wildfires a consideration.
Fourteen years later, in October 2007, the San Diego Wild Animal Park stood off another wildfire without casualties.
The Station Fire menaced sanctuaries
The 160,577-acre Station Fire, burning for 52 days from August 26 to October 16, 2009, at times jeopardized the Animal Acres, DELTA Rescue, Shambala Preserve, and Wildlife Waystation sanctuaries east of Los Angeles.
Animal Acres, now operated by Farm Sanctuary, evacuated all 125 resident animals to a temporary site near Palmdale.
Wildlife Waystation staff and volunteers scrambled to haul animals to emergency housing at the Los Angeles Zoo, Hesperia Zoo, and other locations. Short of transport cages, Waystation founder Martine Colette appealed to the public in search of more. Two Waystation chimps briefly escaped while being unloaded at the Los Angeles Zoo. One chimp got into adjacent Griffith Park, but both were soon recaptured.
Wildlife Waystation, poorly prepared, was hit again
About thirty large and potential dangerous animals, mostly big cats and bears, remained at the Waystation, but escaped unharmed due to heroic efforts by firefighters.
“The fire department and Forest Service set backfires, dug trenches, removed brush, and were there for four days,” recalled then-Waystation board member Peggy Summers. “The fire raged around us and came within a ridge, but was contained. There were water drops and chemical drops to protect the perimeters.”
Despite that experience, and despite having a decade to become better prepared, Wildlife Waystation was badly damaged by the 2017 Creek Fire, leading to the closure of the facility in 2019 and ongoing permanent evacuation of the animals.
(See Wildlife Waystation closed & to be dismantled, after 43 years.)
Shambala Preserve & DELTA Rescue turned fire at their fences
The Shambala Preserve, founded in 1972 and still directed by actress Tippi Hedren, then 79, had transport crates and trailers ready to move the 64 big cats on the premises during the Station Fire, if necessary. None actually were moved, however, as Shambala and DELTA Rescue made a successful fenceline stand against the fire until it turned away.
Shambala, Hedren told media, clears fire breaks every six months and has a 22,000-gallon water tank, a lake, pumps, and backup generators on site for firefighting.
DELTA Rescue is comparably equipped, has multiple fire engines on site and a crew of retired firefighters on call, and has a helipad also used by county firefighters.
Mexican gray wolves
Wildfires menacing the Wolf Rescue Center in Lake George, Colorado, in June 2002, the California Wolf Center near Julian, California, six weeks later, and the Wildland Endangered Animal Sanctuary near Cave Junction, Oregon, just six weeks after that, furnished additional heads-ups to U.S. wildlife keepers.
The Wolf Rescue Center and the Wildland Endangered Animal Sanctuary escaped without animal losses.
Of 31 Mexican gray wolves kept at the California Wolf Center in connection with the federal Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program in Arizona and New Mexico, executive director Patrick Valentino said, 27 were saved.
“Firefighters, pilots performing aerial drops, and 12 dedicated volunteers and staff stood between the fire and wolf enclosure, risking their lives literally to the last second to save the wolves,” Valentino recounted. “The fire moved through our facility in only a few minutes. Flames 100 feet high hit an area that Female 434 always used when she was nervous. She must have stayed there as the fire hit. She may have attracted the attention of three pups who died with her. Male 193 stayed away from the fire in the same enclosure, and had three pups with him.”
Valentino noted that because he and his staff had foreseen that “a fire rushing up a hill will leave little time for an orderly evacuation, our fire defense system was effective in saving 27 wolves.”
Philadelphia & Gladys Porter Zoo fires
Fires starting within zoos occur relatively rarely, but zoos tend to have more difficulty responding to them before animals die.
The worst U.S. zoo fire in the past 25 years broke out on Christmas Eve 1995 in the Philadelphia Zoo “World of Primates,” one of the newest exhibits at the 42-acre zoo, founded in 1859.
Caused by a faulty heating cable, the Philadelphia Zoo fire killed 23 animals: all six gorillas, all three orangutans, all four white-handed gibbons, and 10 lemurs.
The western lowland gorillas Kayla, 10, her year-old son Makoko, and Uzurui, 2, a
female, were killed on January 7, 2002 at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, when a space heater melted a plastic bucket of chlorine disinfectant, flooding the lowland gorilla habitat with lethal fumes. Another gorilla, Penny, 16, suffered a miscarriage.
The Brownsville Zoo had been repeatedly cited by the USDA in the several years preceding the 2002 fire for various violations of safety rules.
Jamaka Petzak says
…and (some) humans still think of our species as the crown of Creation.
Sharing to socials with gratitude, anger, and sorrow.
A. St-Laurent says
Thanks for this story. We like single scapegoats to settle culpability on, and don’t like looking at structural failings and bad decision-making that might implicate people beyond them. What a sad story.