Fire Strikes Woodland Zoo in Farmington, Pennsylvania

Feb. 2, 2004
Darwin Herring, owner of the Woodland Zoo, said it wasn't so much the flickering blaze that upset more than 100 animals last night, but the sights and sounds that followed.

Darwin Herring, owner of the Woodland Zoo, said it wasn't so much the flickering blaze that upset more than 100 animals last night, but the sights and sounds that followed.

"They were stressed out by the sirens and lights," he said. "They don't comprehend that."

At approximately 1 a.m. Sunday, fire crews arrived at the zoo to battle a fire, which broke out in a building containing a gift shop, a storage facility for the animal's food and the maintenance shed.

"There's nothing left to save," Herring said of the loss of food, equipment and supplies, "just pounds of smoldering feed."

Herring said the closest animals to the fire were the coyotes and wolves, caged approximately 100 yards away.

"They were safe," Brain Vansickle, Farmington Fire Chief, said of the animals. "My main concern was to protect the Herring's home and garage."

If an evacuation of the animals had been needed, Herring said the USDA and Game Commission requires zoos to possess a written contingency plan. The plan includes actions such as herding like animals to a safe pen and euthanasia.

"You have to look at every situation and act accordingly," Herring said. "We don't allow the animals to leave the zoo under any circumstance. We just have to maintain control. I go to bed with a tranquillizer gun."

Vansickle said the fire was "fully involved" when he arrived and freezing temperatures did not make the fire easy to fight.

"It was tough battling in the weather," he said. "It was 17 below zero."

Vansickle said equipment, trucks and hoses froze while the firefighters struggled to battle the blaze.

In addition, five ponds on the property that could have been used for firefighting operations were unreachable because of the snow, Herring said, adding that the ponds were also frozen.

Herring said fire trucks were forced to refill their tanks at a stream three to four miles down the road and firefighters who became wet while battling the blaze had to retreat to his home to defrost.

"Their uniforms were frozen stiff," he said. "They couldn't bend their arms."

The fire was under control approximately three hours after crews arrived and firefighters left the scene an hour later, Vansickle said, adding that the state police fire marshal ruled the fire accidental.

The zoo, which welcomes 15,000 to 20,000 visitors annually, suffered a major loss due to the fire, but Herring remains optimistic.

"We'll get by," he said. "The main thing is no one got hurt. We didn't lose any animals or people. It is just stuff. We'll get more stuff."

But that stuff does not come cheap and Herring said replacing food, equipment and medical supplies for the animals is expensive.

Herring estimated the loss at close to $300,000, the same amount the zoo owners recently invested in relocating the zoo from its current five-acre facility on Gibbon Glade Road in Wharton Township to Great Meadows Amphitheater on Route 40.

Herring said the zoo is asking for donations of common items such as cat and dog food and red meat and poultry.

"I never asked for donations before at this zoo. We just got caught with our pants down," Herring said. "This is a big set back. We invested all our money in the new site."

The building and its contents were not insured, Herring added.

"I can't justify re-building," Herring said of the damaged building. "We're hoping to be at the new site in April. We just need to get through the next couple of months."

Herring said he purchased 200 pounds of meat on Sunday from Shop 'N Save, but that meat will only last a few days. The zoo's cougars and other large cats eat 50 pounds of meat a day, he said.

In addition to the zoo's meat supply, the fire destroyed large amounts of hay and feed.

"Square bales are what we need," Herring said. "We lost equipment we need to handle the hay."

Herring said the zoo lost 600 square bales of hay in the fire and uses four to six square bales of hay a day and 600 pounds of round bales of hay a week.

Several local farmers have already donated two loads of hay, Herring said.

Herring said five tons of feed, a three-week supply, was lost to the fire.

The feed, made specifically for zoo animals, is shipped to the zoo through a dealer in West Virginia, Herring said.

"We can't just go down to the local store and buy a bag of bear feed," he said, adding that the zoo's main food supplier dropped off 800 pounds of feed Sunday. That amount will last until the end of the week, Herring said.

"Everybody got their bellies full," Herring said of the animals. "As long as they are in the same environment and have full bellies, they're OK."

The zoo owner said he was thankful the water supply was not involved in the fire. The zoo did lose medical supplies for the animals, though. A fresh batch of supplies is scheduled to arrive today, he said.

Herring said the loss of "simple things" made the day after the fire hard.

"We got food this morning, but we didn't have a feed scoop," he said. "You take little things for granted."

For information on making donations, call the Woodland Zoo at 724-329-8664.

Fire departments from Farmington, Ohiopyle, Markleysburg, Addison, Mill Run, Hopwood, North Union, Fairchance and Uniontown responded to the call, along with Fayette and Uniontown EMS and Markleysburg Volunteer Ambulance Service.

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