CALGARY – Hundreds of grownups and children pressed up behind a purple banner Thursday as they waited for the chance to reconnect with furry, feathery, scaly and leathery friends at the Calgary Zoo.
A cheer went up when Mayor Naheed Nenshi ripped through the banner that read: “Welcome Back. We’re Open,” to officially throw wide all doors to the zoo five months after it was shut down by major flooding.
“Make no mistake. It was devastation to one of the most special places in our city,” said Nenshi.
“The mud, the silt, the broken buildings and the broken hearts were evident all over this island.”
About a third of the zoo reopened at the end of July, but the greater portion remained closed to repair damage caused by raging flood waters that swamped the animal park in June after torrential rains hit southern Alberta. The zoo is built on an island east of downtown and not far from where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet.
Forty buildings, including the African Savannah exhibit, were severely hit.
The zoo was forced to move 160 animals to higher ground at the height of the flood. Zebras were moved to the zoo’s wildlife conservation centre outside the city. Two hippos almost escaped when high water levels lifted them close to the top of their enclosure.
Giraffes that were standing up to their bellies in cold water were ailing after the flood, but recovered. Two peacocks, a pot-bellied pig and a variety of fish died.
The park sustained $50 million in damage and had to find new homes for dozens of animals, closed several buildings and laid off about 300 employees.
“Today we’re so pleased to give you back your zoo, to connect you with nature and hopefully build our future conservationists,” said Clement Lanthier, the zoo’s president and CEO.
Lanthier paid special tribute to staff and volunteers.
“It’s just amazing how they’ve been able to support and inspire.”
The zoo’s location on an island became a hot matter of debate when it came to deciding whether to rebuild, Nenshi told reporters after the opening celebration.
“What we have here is partially some basic math,” said Nenshi.
“If we can build a berm and protect the zoo from future flooding events for $10 million, instead of spending hundreds and hundreds of millions moving and re-establishing the entire thing, does that make sense?”
“And the second important part is this is a special part of the city and we cannot let our fear of the water control everything we do in the city.”
The zoo usually receives 1.3 million visitors a year. It estimates it lost $160,000 a day in revenue.
Monica Wiersma and her four-year-old daughter Emilie were thrilled to be able to visit the animals once again.
“The zoo is one of her favourite places to come when she’s not in school and it’s something we sometimes do twice a month,” said Wiersma.
“She has really missed not being here for the last five months.”