Last June, a zoo from Minot, N.D., sent some exotic animals to Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Wichita while preparing to deal with major flooding.
The animals were supposed to be in Kansas for four to six weeks. A year later, they are still here.
“It’s been pretty good,” said Matt Fouts, assistant director at Tanganyika. “They’ve all adjusted.”
The animals have retained their old habits at their new home:
The female African lion likes to splash around her swimming pool, while the male lion watches from a corner.
The female Amur leopard snarls at visitors, especially when they point a camera lens toward her.
The giraffes are calm and curious.
Neither the staff at Tanganyika nor at Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot knows how much longer the animals will stay in Kansas.
“We’ll keep them as long as we need to,” Fouts said. “We offered to help them out. We’re not going to leave them hanging.”
The big flood
The animals’ old home in Minot is going through a major makeover after the Souris River, which flows through the zoo, flooded last summer.
When the zoo officials first found out in late May last year that the river might flood, they started making calls to other zoos to see which could take the animals.
David Merritt, the zoo director, was new to the area and had only started his job four weeks earlier. He called friends at other zoos in North Dakota. They knew Jim Fouts, Matt’s father and the owner of Tanganyika, on 183rd Street West between Kellogg and Maple.
“There are not too many people you can call in the middle of the night and say, ‘Hey, can you take three giraffes tomorrow?’ ” Merritt said. “That’s where it started. And then more and more animals went that direction as well.”
Last June, Tanganyika received three giraffes and six big cats — an African lion and a lioness, a Siberian tiger, a Bengal tiger and two Amur leopards. They were placed in the old area of the zoo, which the Foutses used as a breeding facility before they opened the wildlife park in 2008.
More than 200 animals from Roosevelt Park Zoo were sent to about 15 zoos around the country. About 40 animals, most of them domestic, were relocated at facilities in Minot.
In the ensuing flood, Minot lost more than 4,000 homes and several hundred businesses.
“The zoo was underwater for six weeks,” Merritt said. “The water was rushing through the zoo as though it was part of the river. The zoo was ruined. Just totally ruined.”
When the waters retreated, everything was covered in silt, Merritt said. The buildings were destroyed and most of the plants were dead.
It was clear that the animals could not come back in a couple of months as planned.
To prevent a natural disaster like that from happening again, the city of Minot decided on a long-term plan to build dikes along the river. The zoo had to wait for the plan to be finished in order to see how its space would be affected and when it could begin reconstruction, Merritt said.
Toward the end of last summer, he told the people at Tanganyika that he wouldn’t be able to take back the animals before spring.
Later in the fall, the Foutses were asked whether they could take in some more of the Minot animals. Zebras, African warthogs and Southern ground hornbills were being hosted at other zoos in the country, which didn’t have enough winter space to accommodate them. The animals came to Kansas.
The Tanganyika staff tried to incorporate the animals into the park’s routines and make them feel comfortable, Matt Fouts said. Sometimes, it meant extra work.
This spring, one of the tigers broke a tooth and needed root canal surgery. A vet who specializes in big cats was flown in from California and, with a tooth vet and Tanganyika’s regular vet, performed surgery on the tiger.
And then there’s the financial factor. Feeding the Minot animals costs more than $100,000 a year, Fouts said. Tanganyika and Minot share the costs.
Last summer, the Foutses established the Twilight Tour, a fundraising event to raise money for the Minot animals, but also for their own winter season, when the park is closed to visitors.
Twilight Tour guests visit the animals at night and go behind the scenes, including to the area behind the old family barns, where the Minot animals live. This year’s event will take place Aug. 11.
The Minot animals are generally off exhibit. The Foutses were previously planning to renovate the old area of the park and open it to the public, but the Minot animals are staying there and the park’s budget got tight.
Matt Fouts said he regrets not being able to display the animals, especially the African lions, which are the second-most-requested species at Tanganyika.
“They’re gorgeous lions,” he said. “It would be amazing to get them on exhibit, but we just don’t have the space.”
Rebuilding the zoo
Reconstruction work has started at the Roosevelt Park Zoo. Three buildings, including a veterinary clinic, are under construction, Merritt said.
The zoo website has posted a “cautiously optimistic” reopening date of August 2012.
The first areas to be rebuilt will be the children’s zoo and the North American portion, which will accommodate animals that have been kept in town.
“They have been living in a warehouse in very decent conditions, but we’d like to get them outside in the sun and the wind,” Merritt said. “It’s simply a matter of practicality and what we could get done the quickest.”
Merritt said he doesn’t know when he will be able to bring back the animals from Tanganyika. He hopes they won’t need to stay in Kansas for longer than another year.
“The people at Tanganyika have been wonderful,” Merritt said. “We would not have gotten this done, get all the animals out safely, if it weren’t for Tanganyika and the Fouts family.”