Prague Zoo Revisited

Prague Zoo hit by floods, photo:

It has been a little over a year now that Prague was hit by the worst flooding in five hundred years - waters that damaged much of the city's infrastructure and destroyed part of the town, as well as hitting the Prague Zoo - where hundreds of animals had to be evacuated at the last minute by dedicated staff and emergency workers. In this edition of Spotlight - we look back at those bleak August days, discuss how the zoo was hit - and perhaps most importantly - look at where the zoo finds itself today: moving forward with new purpose and renewal.

Monday, August 10th 2002 - after a week of lesser flooding and preliminary warnings it becomes clear Prague will be hit - by worse flooding than anyone could have expected. Not fifty - not one hundred - but five-hundred year water. Large parts of the Prague Zoo lie barely protected just several hundred metres off the surging Vltava River. A dramatic evacuation begins.

"It was an unprecedented experience. It was the biggest evacuation in the history of all zoological gardens around the world, and I must say it was an absolute 100 percent fight and work."

Petr Fejk is Prague Zoo's charismatic director credited with taking the zoological gardens into the new millennium. He was at the helm last August - moments he would later call among the most difficult in his career. Although he led the successful evacuation of hundreds of animals - a huge success - there were painful losses too. Animals lost would include one of the zoo's star gorillas Ponk, and a prize elephant, that had to be put down trapped in dirty swirling water.

It had proven beyond anyone's means to predict the flood's severity. Even today Mr Fejk recalls with a measure of bitterness that authorities warned the zoo too late it would be so badly hit.

"We had barriers that were good up to 25 year waters. For this level we could be calm. The first information that the floods would be higher came on Monday at 12 pm. We evacuated all animals at the level of 50 year floods. Now we know that the floods that came were higher. The first information that the flood would be five hundred or one thousands year floods came on Monday at midnight. It was the last minute because we had only six hours for the evacuation of around 800 animals including elephants, hippos, rhinos, gorillas, flamingos, and pelicans. It was late."

Still, in the end, most of the specimens were saved - including one animal Mr Fejk recalls had almost been given up for lost:

"A big surprise for us was the hippo male 'Slavek'. We found Slavek on the 2nd floor in the elephant pavilion - the great flood waters took him there. It was an absolute surprise, very difficult to move him out of this enclosure. But, for us, it was rewarding work. Hippo 'Slavek'."

As for the creatures that were not so lucky:

"We had to kill four animals and around 120 died. It was no only under water but also after the floods from stress of the evacuation. It is very, very difficult for animals - this feeling of panic, absolutely not normal. It was very, very dangerous."

That was then - but what is the situation like today? One year after the floods life has pretty much returned to normal, at least for the zoo's animals. Certainly, the effects of the devastation are still visible in the zoo's lower half: the gorilla house, the big cats' enclosure completely destroyed. But there is an essential difference: after one year there is now a positive air of renewal, and reconstruction is well underway. If anything those grim August days brought the public together in support for its zoo: an outpouring of sympathy from ordinary people, officials, and private sponsors, and that sympathy continues. Meanwhile, the zoo has responded - sporting a new modern style, becoming ever more efficient in its number of services, night tours by way of example. And, it provides and successfully promotes a friendly and positive image through its unforgettable woodcut posters with block letters. They are beautiful to look and easy to spot.

The zoo itself has been reborn: given a chance to rethink what a modern zoo should be. One of the projects now most looked forward to, funded by the city of Prague, is the Indonesian pavilion. Though delayed by the floods it was not derailed; once finished it will provide a kind of ecosystem unprecedented for any zoo in the Czech Republic.

"This is the biggest project in the history of Czech zoos - a very special project, because for example the roof from glass and metal is very original and especially the interior. In this pavilion the most important thing is not just the animals but above all the feeling for the place. The feeling is 'the jungle' the tropical climate, and for example plants from this area, and the feeling that visitors can get inside of this atmosphere."

Which creatures will live in the new pavilion?

"This pavilion will contain a lot of different species from the Indonesian jungle: Orang-utans, Makak monkeys, and also birds and reptiles like the Komodo dragon. Butterflies, fish in the water. The barriers between the animals and people will only be natural ones - like water, for example. Only natural barriers. It was not possible, of course, for orang-utans to move near to people, but the feeling will be one of nature. There will even be 'artificial' rain, special observation points, and effects for animal night activities. I am sure that for visitors this pavilion will be a big surprise."

In the end much to look forward to at the Prague Zoo - both new and renewed. And while director Petr Fejk is the first to admit that much remains to be done before the new pavilions housing all the animals will be finished, he can count on one thing: overwhelming support among the public he is the right man to lead the way. Many visitors at the zoo on the day I visited indicated they were satisfied and excited by the direction Prague Zoo was going. Their thoughts now as we round out the programme - and don't forget zoos and their animals bring out the best in most - reminding us what it's like to be young again.

Indian visitors:

"So far it seems great. Beautiful. Very colourful and lovely."

Last year the zoo was very hard hit by flooding...

"Flooding. We heard about it. That's what our hotel. They were wondering if things had gotten back to normal so we decided to check it out."

Local visitor:

"The zoo is starting a new epoch. Everything is changing. I think it's very good."

Teacher from a high school specialising in zoology and the care of wild animals:

"One year after the floods I am teaching my students about what happened - what parts of the zoo were destroyed, which parts are being constructed anew, which work areas they will not be able to visit. It's important to stress how much zoo workers were able to repair since then. The Prague Zoo is a beautiful one and what happened last year was an absolute tragedy."