As the sky turned dark and a thick haze choked the air below, brushfires closed in on a small coastal town in southeast Australia. Chad Staples and his staff at Mogo Wildlife Park were running out of options; the local zoo, home to the country’s largest private collection of exotic animals, resembled the fiery front lines in an end-of-times battle.
With evacuation orders in place and flames burning everything in their path, zoo workers stayed behind, coaxing lions and orangutans into areas of the park they knew would be safe. But there were others — red pandas, monkeys, a tiger — that still needed someplace to ride out the deadly fires ravaging Victoria and New South Wales.
So the staff took some of the animals home with them, converting houses into wildlife refugee camps. They rallied to save a number of beloved creatures that would have otherwise added to a death toll that already includes at least three people, legions of livestock and possibly thousands of koalas.
As of early Wednesday morning, local time, every one of the roughly 200 animals was safe.
Staples, the zoo’s director, described an Ark-like scene: “Right now, in my house, there’s animals of all descriptions in all the different rooms so that they’re safe and protected,” he told Australian Broadcasting Company.
“No one is hurt, not a single animal,” Staples said.
He’s currently housing several species of small monkeys and some of the pandas. And another staffer is keeping a tiger in their backyard, a spokeswoman for Featherdale Wildlife, which owns the Mogo Zoo, told BBC.
“Incredible effort by amazing team of passionate keepers today,” the zoo said in a tweet. “Every animal is safe and in wonderful care.”
The zoo’s larger animals — its giraffes, zebras and rhinos — couldn’t be relocated. Instead, zoo staff sheltered them in place and went about defending the park like the Castle Grayskull.
Staples told the Illawarra Mercury newspaper that his employees had spent the last week planning for the worst. When it came this week, they sprang into action, spraying down grass and animal shelters to stop the blaze from spreading.
Volunteers flocked there, too, helping zookeepers stamp out spot fires that cropped up around the property, working from early Tuesday into the night, until winds changed and a once dire forecast turned more favorable.
“A couple of hours ago, it felt like Armageddon here,” Staples told ABC. “It was black as midnight, with tinges of red. It was like we were fighting fires in the darkness.”
He said his staff “defended this place like it was their family.”
By Tuesday evening, Staples said they would remain vigilant but are hopeful that the zoo has escaped tragedy. Asked in his ABC interview what else his staff needs, Staples echoed the New Year’s wish of most in the country: “Rain would be nice.”