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Fire at Nation’s Oldest Zoo Kills 23 Primates

December 24, 1995

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Smoke that spread through a primate house after a fire broke out at the nation’s oldest zoo early Sunday killed 23 rare gorillas, orangutans, gibbons and lemurs.

A security guard at The Philadelphia Zoo reported the fire shortly before 1 a.m. in the World of Primates building. It was confined to the ceiling in a 30-by-30-foot section of the one-story brick building, fire Commissioner Harold Hairston said.

The primates, all endangered species, died apparently of smoke inhalation. Ten others were treated for smoke exposure.

``I have watched a lot of these animals from when they were very young. Watched them mature and develop. This is so hard,″ said Karl Kranz, who supervises the zoo’s animal keepers. ``We’ll get through this, but it won’t be at all easy.″

Killed were six western lowland gorillas, three Bornean orangutans, four white-handed gibbons and 10 lemurs. Among them were gorillas John, Snickers and Samantha, all residents of the zoo since 1967.

Also killed was 11-month-old gorilla Maandazi, the youngest victim. A sign posted outside the World of Primates celebrates her birth with ``It’s a girl!″

A second sign outside reads: ``Nighttime at the zoo finds our gorillas nestled together in their bedrooms. Even indoors, the stars shine above them as they sleep.″

``These animals are so close to human that this is really like losing members of our family,″ the zoo’s president, Pete Hoskins, said with his voice cracking. ``They have moods, personalities and even a sense of humor. I just can’t find the words to say how all of us are feeling right now.″

Robert Wolcott, the zoo’s board chairman, and his wife, Peggy, embraced silently at the zoo with their eyes teary.

A bereavement specialist from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine was called in to meet with zookeepers, cage cleaners, curators and other employees.

Philadelphia’s PNC Bank launched a restoration campaign with a $10,000 contribution.

``The zoo has been a good friend to Philadelphia and Philadelphia’s children,″ bank spokesman Mark Eyerly said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation. The building was equipped with smoke detectors but didn’t have an automatic sprinkler system. The law doesn’t require one.

The zoo is normally closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It was supposed to reopen Dec. 26 but will remain closed until Jan. 2. The primate exhibit, not the only monkey enclosure at the zoo, could be closed for months while fire damage is repaired.

The zoo was founded in 1859. About 1.4 million visitors passed through its Victorian-style gardens last year, many drawn by the gorillas and orangutans, as well as the rare white lions.

The fire caps a troubled year for the zoo, including layoffs, resignations of key personnel, investigations of embezzling and an anticipated $1.5 million budget deficit. The morale of the 170 employees was already low, Hoskins said.

``There’s never a good time for something like this, but there couldn’t be a worse time,″ he said. ``We’ve all got to cry a little bit.″

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