Devastating floods lead to great losses for Prague zoo

Seal named Gaston from Prague ZOO, photo: CTK

A 12-year-old seal named Gaston made international headlines when he escaped from Prague zoo during last week's floods, swimming around 120 kilometres in five days, before being recaptured north of Dresden in Germany. Unfortunately, the seal died on Tuesday while being transported back to Prague, evidently from shock and exhaustion; his death was sadly typical of the misfortune which has befallen Prague zoo over the last week. Ian Willoughby has more.

Seal named Gaston from Prague ZOO, photo: CTK
The terrible plight of Prague zoo - the lower half of which was completely underwater during last week's floods - has caught the imaginations of people both here in the Czech Republic and abroad. Officials and keepers at the zoo, like so many others, were prepared for rising waters, but not for the worst floods in centuries. As the full extent of the flooding became apparent, the zoo battled frantically to save as many animals as possible. They were not always successful. Elephant keeper Zbynek Sisa explains why they had no option but to put down Kadir, a 35-year-old Indian elephant.

"The elephant which had to be shot was a threat...as the water rose he wouldn't have been content to just swim in it, and there was a chance he would want to get out and would swim away and out of the grounds of the zoo, which would have been a disaster, because it was an aggressive animal, very aggressive towards people. He's the most bad-tempered animal I know...we had some ideas as to how to save him but they wouldn't have worked - even if they had been possible to carry out - because the animal would have escaped. We couldn't have let him out of the zoo...there was no alternative, and anyway he would have drowned in the end."

Moving the elephant, which had been at the zoo for over 30 years, would normally have taken three days, and it just couldn't be managed in a few hours. A hippopotamus called Lentilka also had to be put down, for fear of the possible havoc she could have wreaked if she had escaped into the river Vltava. Fortunately, another hippo - which was believed to have died - was found after the floodwater began to recede. Zbynek Sisa again.

Hippo named Slavek from Prague Zoo, photo: CTK
"He was found lying in the upper service rampart of the elephants' enclosure, about five or five and a half metres above the ground. In the end we had the idea of using a ramp, and managed to rush him down the ramp. Firemen helped us to clean the layer of mud out of its enclosure."

While over 1,000 animals and birds were moved to safety, around ten big mammals were lost, including an aging lion and a bear considered too old to evacuate. An estimated 80 exotic birds were also lost. The zoo's ape house is in the lower part of the zoo, and like every single building there it was covered, roof and all, by the floods. The gorillas were rescued in a dramatic last minute evacuation, as keeper Gabriela Herverova explains.

"They started moving the gorillas when their house was already starting to be flooded. Luckily some rescue workers arrived on a big raft. They parked there by the ape house, put the gorillas to sleep, took them onto the boat and got them out of there. Now they're in the zoo at Dvur Kralove. I hope they're OK there. As for whether they'll return here, we don't know."

Unfortunately one of the zoo's five gorillas, Pong - who was very popular with the public - was lost in the evacuation effort and is believed to have drowned. Of the three seals which escaped two are now back at the zoo, albeit somewhat the worse for wear. As you heard, the third escaped seal Gaston died while being transported back to Prague.

Life goes on of course, and the upper part of Prague zoo is due to reopen to the public this coming weekend. As for the devastated lower part, officials hope to reopen at least some sections later in the year.