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Duluth animals swept away in flood being sent to Como Zoo

In this photo provided by Ellie Burcar, a seal that escaped from the Lake Superior Zoo lies on Grand Avenue in Duluth, Minn. around 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Some animals escaped from their pens at the zoo as floods fed by a steady torrential downpour struck northeastern Minnesota, inundating the city of Duluth, officials said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Ellie Burcar)

DULUTH - The animals never had a chance.

The floodwaters at the Lake Superior Zoo rose several feet Wednesday morning, completely engulfing three bird habitats and washing away all of the animals in the barnyard exhibit. By the time the waters receded, zoo staff said three of its birds had drowned, turkey vulture, a raven, a snowy owl; of the barnyard animals, only a miniature horse survived, while six sheep, four goats and a donkey died.

Peter Pruett, the zoo's director of animal management, likened it to losing "peers and co-workers."

"If we don't work with them directly, we won't have happy, healthy animals and a happy, healthy zoo," Pruett said.

Overflows from Kingsbury Creek wreaked havoc at the zoo. At one point, the zoo's seals and Berlin the polar bear were able to escape their exhibits. The polar bear was found near its habitat, was tranquilized and brought to a quarantine area, a building at one of the highest points of the zoo.

The seals went much farther than that, with one of them eventually making its way to Grand Avenue. It's likely the seal went through one of the culverts to the opposite side of Grand Avenue before heading back to the zoo, when two residents found it.

"The Police Department asked, 'How good a swimmer is it?' " Pruett said. "I said, 'Unfortunately, too good.' "

Both seals were eventually taken to the quarantine area with the help of firefighters and police.

The seals and Berlin are being transferred to the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, Pruett announced Wednesday evening. The brown bears and lions will be moved to the quarantine area.

"This is a precautionary measure," Pruett said in a news release. "It is a considerable undertaking to tranquilize a large carnivore and it is stressful for the animal, but it's in their best interest."

None of the zoo's dangerous animals made it outside the perimeter fence, according to spokeswoman Keely Johnson.

Pruett said the morning was often tense as he and other zoo staff members searched for the animals and made sure others were OK.

"I can't give enough praise to the staff," he said.

He said he wasn't sure when the zoo would reopen. By late morning, the entire middle area of the zoo still resembled a small lake. The playground area was almost submerged under several feet of water; the downstairs entrance to the Polar Shores exhibit was completely flooded.

"We'll start the cleanup tomorrow," Pruett said.

Johnson said a culvert for Kingsbury Creek was backed up and caused the flooding, but that culvert is now completely washed out.