Eleven months after bushfires threatened to destroy Mogo Wildlife Park, life at the private zoo is slowly returning to normal.
“Since the bushfires we’ve had to shut twice because of COVID-19,” says the zoo’s director, Chad Staples. “But recent visitor numbers have been really good and we’re looking forward to a really busy summer here on the coast.”
However, memories of the New Year’s Eve bushfires which swept through the NSW south coast, including the nearby village of Mogo, are never far from his thoughts.
For two days, the director and 16 staff courageously kept the fires at bay with little more than hoses, buckets and hessian bags. The animals were moved into secure buildings – some, including monkeys, found refuge in Chad’s kitchen.
“It felt like Armageddon,” says Chad. “We were completely surrounded by fire.”
Although Mogo Wildlife Park had been assured of support from the Rural Fire Service should it be threatened by the bushfires, in the end they overwhelmed and could not help. Staff were given the choice to leave, but most opted to stay and defend the zoo and its 200-plus animals.
“These animals are family and that was shown by everyone who stayed,” he says.
The zoo’s population includes lemurs, tamarins, pandas, zebras, giraffes, meerkats, tigers, gibbons, otters, chimpanzees, snow leopards, penguins and many reptiles.
After the initial euphoria of surviving the bushfires, the much-loved zoo faced the daunting prospect of rebuilding – plus, with no visitors coming through the door, a lack of cash.
Chad says the financial and moral support of the local community has played a key role in the zoo’s survival.
“Everyone has been giving whatever they can, which has been amazing,” he says.
“And it’s not just the generosity in terms of money but all those well-wishers who have reached out to us. It’s been lovely to know how much the zoo means to so many people.”
The wildlife park has been an important tourist drawcard for almost 30 years, but its director believes the bushfires created a special bond between the zoo and the local community.
“The survival of the zoo was a great news story during an otherwise pretty horrible time,” he says.
“Anyone who knew of us came back and visited us, but there were a lot of new people out there who have discovered us for the first time because of what happened during the bushfires.”
Grassroots support has been crucial in the construction of a new wildlife hospital at the zoo. A GoFundMe appeal raised $151,000, while corporate supporters also pitched in with support.
“The new veterinary hospital is 95 per cent complete, which is very exciting,” says Chad. “This year’s bushfires claimed the lives of many native animals, but we will now have the resources to help rescue animals in any future crisis.”
The temporary closures due to COVID-19 have allowed keepers to rebuild their relationships with the animals at Mogo Wildlife Park – many were naturally shaken by the turmoil in January.
“In all those months we were closed we were still here doing our job as if the public was here. It just meant we had more time with those animals that we care so much about,” he says.
“There have been some beautiful moments between keepers and animals this year.”
One memorable highlight was the birth of a baby giraffe – an event that few humans ever get to witness. After a lengthy 16-month gestation period, a female giraffe gives birth fairly rapidly, while still standing up.
“When they are born, baby giraffes are already about 90 kilos and 6 feet [1.8m] tall,” the zoo director explains.
“And because giraffes give birth standing up, the whole process is a lot quicker than for humans – birthing takes about two to three hours from the very first contraction.”
The reproduction rate among the animals has been so high that the zoo didn’t need to import any new animals in the months following the New Year’s Eve fires.
“Apart from the giraffe, we’ve also welcomed a baby lion and a baby zebra over recent months, which has been really positive for the team,” he says.
“The good thing about zoos is that they restock themselves.”