Philadelphia Zoo Fire

A fire in the primate building of the Philadelphia Zoo during the early morning hours of December 24 killed 23 animals, including a family group of six lowland gorillas, a family group of three orangutans, four white-handed gibbons, and ten lemurs (2 ruffed, 6 ringtail, and 2 mongoose). All were members of endangered species. The animals died in their sleep from smoke inhalation (carbon monoxide poisoning); none were burned. Ten primates who were housed in an adjoining building, the Discovery House, survived.

Two security guards smelled smoke by the Philadelphia Zoo's primate house as they made their rounds about 10 p.m. Saturday, but they took no action. They dismissed the smell as coming from nearby railroad tracks as had happened frequently. Almost three hours later, at 12:40 a.m. Sunday, the guards returned and found flames on the roof. Fire and zoo officials pinned the blaze on an electrical malfunction caused by improperly installed wires that heated ceiling pipes. Snow on the roof of the 10-year-old World of Primates building muffled any noise that might have been produced by smoke alarms, and fire officials found no one who had heard them sound. The alarm system worked when the city last tested it, in September. The primate house had three smoke alarms but did not have automatic sprinklers, which might not have spared the animals. "The fire was outside and the smoke spread through the ceiling," Pete Hoskins, president of the Zoo, said. "The animals in this case very likely would have suffered the same fate" even with sprinklers.

The Fire Department has recommended that the zoo train its guards to call 911, that it install sprinklers "wherever practical" in the animal houses, and that it create a central alarm system. Fire officials could not pinpoint the time that the fire started in the ceiling of the World of Primates building's breezeway, a 30-foot-by-30-foot section near the gorillas' living quarters. Firefighters said they had the blaze under control by 1:09 a.m.

Zoo officials have not decided whether to repair the severely damaged primate shelter, a one-story brick structure designed by Robert Venturi, the renowned Philadelphia architect. The building, valued at $6 million, opened in 1986. The zoo is creating a special exhibition honoring the primates, which will be in place throughout January.

The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce announced Tuesday that it would donate $10,000 to help restore the primate exhibition. One board member, who asked to remain anonymous, gave $10,000. PNC Bank has contributed $10,000 and established a fund for the animals. Donations can be made to the Zoo Renewal Fund c/o PNC Bank, Public Affairs Dept., 100 S. Broad St., Philadelphia 19101. -- This article was compiled from sources including Primate-Talk, CompMed, The Philadelphia Daily News, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Wisconsin Animal Facility Fire

A fire that killed 700 pigs at a University of Wisconsin laboratory has brought to an abrupt halt years of research with implications for human ailments like heart disease and arthritis. Three herds of carefully bred research animals that were also used in studies of organ transplants, nutrition and bone development were lost when the fire, which occurred on Wednesday, swept the Swine Research Center on a 2,000 acre farm 20 miles north of the university's main campus in Madison. University officials said that no employees were at the center at the time. A neighboring farmer reported the blaze. The fire was of unknown origin, but arson or foul play have been ruled out. --From the NY Times, December 26, 1995, p. A17 and reports on CompMed

Editors' Comments

The Editors join the primatological community in sending sympathy to the staff of the Philadelphia Zoo, especially the primate staff, which had been caring for these animals for a long time. One of the gorillas had been born in the Zoo less than a year ago -- another was discovered at necropsy to have been pregnant.

We are left wondering what could and should have been done to prevent these tragedies. It is not useful to blame the guards, who had reported fires in the past, only to find they were controlled blazes, and eventually gave up "crying 'wolf'." We ourselves know a woman who was nearly overcome by smoke staying in her apartment when a real fire followed a long series of false alarms.

We are responsible for the animals we have in captivity, especially since we are holding them in situations where they cannot escape dangers that we have been unable to keep out. It is incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to protect them. We must also realize, however, that life, whether in the wild, in captivity, or our own lives in "civilization," can never be free of risk. As the Triangle Shirt Factory fire led to reforms and improvements in human working conditions, let us hope that these tragedies will similarly lead to reforms and improvements in conditions for captive animals.