How heroic Chester Zoo staff saved terrified orangutans from devastating fire

Chester Zoo staff were able to save all the orangutans from the devastating fire by coaxing the terrified animals out of the burning building.

Employees encouraged them to safety by calling them and using the strong bonds they had developed with the apes.

Once all of the orangutans had been accounted for, staff ensured the door back inside was closed.

The animals then wrapped themselves in blankets as a comfort mechanism.

Today, "devastated" staff confirmed all animals who survived are "fine" and attempts are being made to give them one-to-one health checks.

Zoo bosses have also hailed the heroic staff after the fire broke out just before Saturday lunchtime in the Monsoon Forest complex.

It quickly engulfed the building, with the whole park evacuated shortly afterwards, reports North Wales Live.

The dome-roofed centre is home to thousands of animals, including primates, crocodiles, snakes and fish.

As the inferno raged, zoo staff went into the burning rainforest and brought the creatures – some of which are critically endangered – out to safety.

At a press conference, the zoo’s animal and plant director Mike Jordan said while the larger animals had been rescued, some of the other species – including birds and fish – had died.

He said: "We know some animals have died. The house contained everything from spiders to stick insects, fish, frogs – it was an incredibly complex forest environment.

“Where the fire broke out, we know it was in the vicinity of some fish and insects, and that area has been completely destroyed by fire.

"We cannot confirm the exact numbers [of animals that have died] and in some cases it will be uncertain numbers of very small animals.

“A very small number of bird carcasses have been recovered but most of the others recovered are alive and healthy.

“We lost none of the mammals, none of the primates. We lost none of the gibbons, none of the macaques, none of the orangutans. All of these as of today are safe and being looked after.

"We were able with our keepers and the relationships they have with the animals, the strong bond between them, to call the animals out.

“It allowed us to lead the animals out into their outdoor area and with the help of the fire brigade we were able to get into the enclosure and close the hatches to lock them outside.

"So even if they were a little bit chilly at least they were safe.

“Lots of the orangutans have sacking or blankets they like to cuddle and carry around with them.

"Any that did that during the evacuation, it was self controlled. We didn’t wrap them up in blankets, they did it themselves. I think it was a comfort issue.”

At the height of the blaze there were 15 fire engines tackling it, and high winds from Storm Deirdre sent into the air a large plume of smoke that could be seen for miles around.

Eyewitnesses described seeing animals that had been in the building when it went up attempting to make their escape.

Antony Johnstone, who was visiting the zoo with his wife, daughter and two friends, described seeing orangutans and gibbons leaving the building.

He said: “We were about to literally step foot into the building when another visiting family, who were stood in the entrance, said there was a fire starting and it was closed.

“As we walked around the side of the building on the footpath, we could see all the animals were released outside the fire had spread and lots of black smoke came out of the building.

“We walked to another area of the zoo and then were told the zoo was closing.

“The staff reacted very well and moved the public away, the zoo also issued refunds to our friends with no problems.

“We are members of the zoo and it was such a shame to see this happening.”

Antony said he saw staff letting the animals into the outside part of their enclosure.

He added: “We saw the orangutans coming out and the gibbons swinging around the netting on the enclosure.”

By mid-afternoon, the Monsoon Forest had lost its entire polymer roof. Photographs released by Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service revealed the dense, lush rainforest enclosure was now a bare, charred, ash-filled shell.

The Islands complex only opened in 2015, and cost around £40m.

By late afternoon on Sunday a fundraising campaign had seen more than £90,000 donated towards rebuilding the habitat.

The zoo was open as normal on Sunday and its popular Christmas lantern parade was set to go ahead as normal.

But zoo bosses said it had "one of the toughest days in our long history."

Chief operating officer Jamie Christon added: "The remarkable efforts from the zoo team and the emergency services meant the fire was extinguished as quickly as possible.

"Visitors were evacuated immediately and we would like to thank them for their understanding and cooperation. Thankfully, no staff or public were harmed in the incident.

"Keepers were able to encourage all mammal species away from the fire and to safety – including the zoo’s group of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans, Sulawesi macaques, endangered silvery gibbons and birds such as rhinoceros hornbills.

"We are though, devastated to say that we were unable to save some of our insects, frogs, fish and small birds who were located near to the outbreak of the fire.

"It’s absolutely heartbreaking to lose any animal, especially when conservationists have worked so hard to breed these wonderful species.

"New homes have been found within the zoo for all of the animals that were led to safety and our teams are working around the clock to relocate them as soon as possible.

"The strength and support from the public has been incredibly overwhelming and the messages of goodwill have been of great comfort to our teams. We will support each other in rebuilding this part of the zoo and continue our mission of preventing extinction.

"The cause of the fire is currently unknown, but we will be helping the relevant authorities with the investigation that will take place over the coming days and weeks. We would again, like to thank the emergency services for their swift response."

One person was treated for smoke inhalation at the scene, but there were no reports of any other injuries.

An investigation into how the fire started is ongoing, Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service said.

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