DULUTH, Minn. - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say that the Lake Superior Zoo was negligent in allowing 13 or 14 animals to die during the flood Wednesday, calling on Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson to bring cruelty charges against the zoo.
However, Johnson said Thursday, his "very preliminary review" of the matter doesn't indicate that charges are warranted.
"Anytime someone makes allegations of cruelty to animals we take those allegations seriously," Johnson said. "We saw things in the infrastructure fail throughout the city. It's an act of God. A water structure (culvert) didn't work and it failed and that failure caused a series of events that led to the loss of these animals. That appears to be what happened."
PETA says the animals shouldn't have been left in a position to drown. Kristin Simon, senior cruelty caseworker for PETA in Norfolk, Va., said in a phone interview that flash flood warnings had been issued in the Duluth area and the zoo had experienced a similar event in 2010.
"At the very least, PETA would like to see the zoo put in standard emergency operating procedures into place," she said. "It's just a shame that this kind of tragedy was required for common sense to kick in. ... We would like to see a full investigation into this matter and we would like to see cruelty charges filed against those who failed these animal victims."
Sam Maida, CEO of the Lake Superior Zoological Society that manages the zoo, said he believes zoo employees took the appropriate action based on the information they had at the time, but they weren't expecting "five to nine inches in a stalled system."
Maida said PETA's charges are "somewhat unfounded."
"Obviously, they were not here to experience it," he said. "Taking the zoo and isolating on it with all that went on in the counties around here with $100 million worth of damage in the area. I think taking it out of context is somewhat dangerous."
Three birds -- a turkey vulture, a raven and a snowy owl -- plus six sheep, four goats and a donkey are believed to have died as Kingsbury Creek overflowed. However, Maida said, the raven, whose body wasn't found, could have flown away. The polar bear, Berlin, and the zoo's seals escaped their exhibits. Berlin was tranquilized and taken to a quarantine area. Both seals were recaptured after one of them apparently went through a culvert to the opposite side of Grand Avenue.
The polar bear and seals were temporarily transferred to Como Park Zoo & Conservatory in St. Paul.
PETA is an international animal rights organization with more than 3 million members and supporters globally.
"It's difficult to imagine the terror that these animals experienced, having no way to escape as the water engulfed them," said Daphna Nachminovitch, PETA vice president of cruelty investigations.
PETA said the zoo violated the Minnesota cruelty to animals statute, which defines "cruelty" as "every act, omission or neglect which causes or permits unnecessary or unjustifiable pain, suffering or death."
City Attorney Johnson defended the zoo and its employees, whom he said cared deeply for the animals and have taken their loss very personally.
"We all know that the zoo has recently been reaccredited and that reaccreditation is based on their efforts to improve the zoo facility for visitors but also to take better care of the animals and to provide a better experience for animals to live there," he said. "Obviously, the flooding that occurred the other night is a sad series of events. No one likes to see animals at the zoo die."