Friday, April 24, 2009

Dozens of animals killed in Zoo to You fire in Paso Robles

Posted on Thu, Apr. 23, 2009

Tonya Strickland
A barefoot Anita Jackson fought urges to dash into the building filled with thick smoke and raging flames early Thursday morning to save the 62 Zoo to You animals inside.
“You don’t even have time to think,” she said, “You’re just reacting.”

Instead, the nonprofit educational director grabbed a hose and began pouring water on the flames. Just seconds before, she first learned the building on the eastern Paso Robles property was on fire, threw on clothes and ran from her home next door.

“It was engulfed in flames,” Jackson said. “The whole ceiling was just covered in fire. There was black smoke everywhere.”

No people were hurt in the fire, which started about 7:40 a.m., but nearly 40 animals died. Early indications were that the fire started from some kind of electrical malfunction.

Finding flames

Employee Angela Beolk, who first discovered the blaze and called Jackson when smoke billowed from a door she opened, was already on the phone with a 911 dispatcher to send help to 2445 Adobe Road when Jackson arrived.

Soon, other employees came, too — hosing the building down before County/Cal Fire and Paso Robles Emergency Services arrived within 10 minutes. The blaze was contained 10 to 15 minutes later.

Zoo to You is a nonprofit North County-based wildlife educational organization that takes in rescued animals and introduces them to schools and groups. About 250 animals live in habitats on its 40-acre site near the Paso Robles Municipal Airport, including mountain lions, a tiger, a bear, porcupines and alligators.

“Just looking at it,” Jackson said of the fiery building, “you could tell nothing was surviving in there.”

However, less than half the occupants did survive — primarily snakes, lizards, frogs and turtles from the reptile room where the door was always kept shut to keep the heat in for the climate-controlled environment. A total of 24 live animals were pulled from the charred building when the fire was out.

Those killed were 38 of the nonprofit organization’s monkeys, parrots, sloths, small kookaburra birds and others.

“Everybody is devastated,” Jackson said of the numerous helpers that spend hours each day caring for and interacting with the creatures.

“These aren’t just animals, they’re your best friends.”

Among the animals that died was a 50-year-old Macaque monkey named Lisa Lulu. Jackson said the 20-pound primate was a staff favorite and everyone is saddened to have lost her and the others.

Another animal Jackson spoke fondly of was a 10-year-old sloth named Mogee who recently traveled to Santa Maria to interact with hundreds of smiling children.

“He was such a sweetie,” she said. “He just wanted to be in your arms.”

Community help

The destroyed building was a one-story ranch house converted into habitat rooms for animals that needed to be kept indoors, Jackson said.

While about 95 percent of the approximately 1,200-square-foot building was used to house the critters in enclosures and aquariums, County/Cal Fire public information officer Clint Bullard said, one corner was used as an office with a desk, computers and a fax machine.

Officials reported $400,000 in damages to the contents and animal equipment kept inside the building, and about $80,000 to the structure itself.

Investigators said the cause was electrical and started in the office, and insurance investigators were still trying to determine the specific cause.

By about 8 a.m., Jackson said about 50 neighbors and passersby showed up to help.

The group saw an outpouring of assistance by the afternoon — neighbors brought food, two Atascadero veterinarians donated antibiotics to treat the surviving animals, Sylvester Winery lent out its climate-controlled wine container for a temporary reptile home, Paso Robles Waste Disposal set up a trash bin for debris and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio donated $5,000 to the fire-recovery effort.

how you can help

To donate to Zoo to You’s fire-recovery effort to build a new reptile structure, send checks to P.O. Box 1998, Paso Robles CA 93447. There is also an account set up at Rabobank under the name Zoo to You. Officials estimate a new reptile enclosure will cost the group $70,000 to $80,000.