Last Monday started like any early August morning at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.
The grizzly bears lounged around boulders in Rocky Mountain Wild. Reticulated giraffes munched on lettuce treats in the African Rift Valley. Daisy, the Muscovy duck, crashed a neighbor’s birthday party and upstaged the guest of honor, who didn’t seem to mind.
The zoo’s operations center had been keeping an eye on a supercell thunderstorm moving into the area, but such systems tended to bank east toward the plains before really baring their teeth. This storm was expected to do the same, and by early afternoon, it still seemed as though it might. The sun was shining on visitors, keepers and more than 750 animals at America’s highest-altitude zoo, a network of habitats, enclosures, and exhibits built into the eastern flank of Cheyenne Mountain in southwest Colorado Springs.
As she walked between buildings after lunch that day, animal care manager Dina Bredahl looked up at the ominous cloud bank rolling in. She recalls remarking to a co-worker that it “looked kind of like ‘Ghostbusters’ sky.”
“We knew something was coming, but there was nothing happening, not a drop of anything,” Bredahl said.
That changed around 2 p.m., when dark harmonics of atmosphere and altitude turned a slow-moving storm into an unprecedented, 15-minute burst of brutality directly over the zoo. The shower of softball-size hailstones injured 21 guests and staff members, killed five animals and caused as-yet-untallied millions in property damage.
The zoo reopened Saturday, less than a week after the most destructive weather event — and longest closure — in its nearly 100-year history.
“The devastation was intense and complete, from a car and skylight standpoint, and it happened in a relatively short period of time,” said zoo President and CEO Bob Chastain, whose staff was joined that day by emergency crews from the Colorado Springs Fire Department. “They did an amazing job getting things organized and helping get people off the mountain. We know people got injured, and we’re sorry about that, but what could have been much worse was made a lot better by people who were organized and ready.”
Guests and staff had just finished celebrating Carlotta the tapir’s 24th birthday, and Daisy’s showboating, when things “turned bad,” animal care manager Joanna Husby said.
“We were singing her ‘Happy Birthday’ … and Daisy the duck was playing in the pool, chasing the bubbles in the waterfall … and splashing around so much there were actually guests getting splashed,” Husby said.
As the birthday party crowd dispersed, zoo spokesperson Jenny Koch was gazing out the window of a meeting room, at a sky plunged into darkness.
The hail came moments later, fast, furious and the size of fists.
“It just happened so fast. It didn’t start small and get big. There wasn’t really even any rain,” Koch said.
Bredahl was preparing to head out of the zoo’s office building with her storm gear when she heard what sounded “almost like a meteor shower.”
“I could tell something giant was hitting that awning,” she said. “Really soon, I started hearing screaming, so I opened the door and all these guests were running for cover.”
Keeper Bruce Dunbar had just finished moving the wallabies inside when the potentially deadly hail starting slamming down, trapping him in a building that lay an uncovered sprint away from the reptiles he also oversaw in the skylight-roofed Scutes Family Gallery.
“Basically we had to sit and watch. It was a helpless feeling,” said Dunbar, who kept an ear to his radio, waiting for a break in the storm so he could dash up to the reptile center.
In the lull between squalls, he made his move through the campus to Scutes, where the floor was a solid carpet of glass shards, but guests and animals were, miraculously, unharmed.
“It was one of those surreal moments where you’re just looking through things trying to make sure everybody’s safe,” Dunbar said. “That’s our first priority.”
He moved everyone — humans first, then animals — to the building’s basement. A few blocks away in the office building, Bredahl had done the same with guests who’d sheltered there, hunkering down as far away from windows and skylights as they could get.
By then, though, the fury had been spent.
Three hours after the storm started, between 600 and 900 patrons had been evacuated and the sun was again shining, this time on shattered roofs, totaled cars and a riot of debris that, after three days of round-the-clock cleanup and reconstruction, would overflow three 30-yard dumpsters.
Rocky Mountain Highlands keeper Rebecca Zwicker was off work last Monday, but heard the news and was on her way up to lend a hand when she got a call from a co-worker who’d been injured by a hailstone. Zwicker gave her colleague a ride home from the hospital then made her way to the zoo, where she joined in sifting through the rubble, accounting for all animals and triaging those with injuries.
“Because it took us so much by surprise, there was a lot of mad dashes for shelter” and panic among both humans and animals, Zwicker said. “We want to lay eyes on everybody, no matter who they are. Some of the smallest animals that we care for, (such as) a little merganser duck, Missy Franklin, that lives in the moose pool … seeing them, I felt very comforted.”
As zookeepers soon began to discover, however, an unfortunate few of the zoo’s residents were not so lucky.
Casualties included two members of the zoo’s free-roving group of peacocks, Katy Perry and Snoop; a 13-year-old rare Cape vulture, Motswari; and a meerkat pup keepers believe most likely died in a collapsed burrow.
Also among the dead was 4-year-old Daisy the duck.
Husby said it’s comforting to think Daisy spent her final hours at the zoo where she’d been born doing what she loved, and what patrons loved her for.
“At least three young guests came up after (the birthday party) and said, ‘Who is that duck? I want to get to know that duck,’” Husby said. “It’s just really great to know that small of a creature, on her unfortunate last day, was able to be such a great animal ambassador and have such a great impact on our guests’ lives.”
In life, even a creature smaller than a hailstone can send a mammoth-size message.
On his way to an emergency staff meeting in the hours after the storm, Dunbar spied a contingent of the zoo’s peacock population. Three peahens and their tiny chicks were picking their way through the mess of branches and fallen leaves by the monkey building.
“One chick I don’t think was even three weeks old, smaller than some of the hail that was falling … and they were all OK, just hopping along,” Dunbar said. “Seeing them out and about after the storm was one of those things reassuring (me) that we’re going to get through it. Animals are resilient, and we are, too.”