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Krefeld Zoo: Overcoming the trauma of a deadly fire

Rina Goldenberg
January 1, 2021

On New Year's Day 2020, images of a deadly fire in a German zoo's ape enclosure went around the world. One year on, national and international support has helped employees to look to the future.

Baboon sculpture with thank-you notice to all the zoo's supporters
The grand baboon stone sculpture at the zoo's entrance has become a commemoration siteImage: Rina Goldenberg/DW

In late November the demolition of the ape house in Krefeld Zoo was completed. "That was a huge relief," says zoo director Wolfgang Dressen. "Not having to walk past the charred ruins anymore allows us to get some sense of closure."

Bird's eye view of burned out ape house in January 2020
Eleven months after the fire, the ruins of the Krefeld zoo's ape house had been razed to the groundImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Reichwein

Dressen recalls his sense of helplessness as the fire raged through the night, and upon hearing that 50 animals, including 8 great apes, had perished in the flames. Then there was the immediate onslaught of accusations of negligence and of personal threats via social media. 

"It started not long after the fire had broken out," says zoo press spokesman Adam Mathea. "There were threats, accusations and conspiracy theories, which was very upsetting to our staff," he explains. In the end the zoo deleted hate speech and flagged some threatening comments to the police." 

Wolfgang Dressen pointing at a map of the zoo
Zoo Director Wolfgang Dressen is beginning to plan a new larger ape enclosureImage: Rina Goldenberg/DW

Criminal investigation

The zoo rejects all accusations of negligence: The ape house, built in 1975, had its roof replaced and was found to be in accordance with fire safety requirements in 2009. The guard patrolling the zoo just happened to be in a faraway corner of the 14-hectare compound when the fire broke out.

It quickly became clear that a "sky lantern" — a small hot-air balloon made of paper — had caused the fire. An expert reconstruction of the event showed how such a lantern landed on the plexiglass roof, its highly inflammatory liquid spilling out and burning a large hole through the four layers of acrylic panes. The hole allowed the warm air from within the house to rise like a funnel and fan the flames. Firefighters managed only to prevent the fire from spreading to adjacent areas where gorillas and kangaroos were kept.

Many sky lanterns rising into the night sky
Sky lanterns are mini hot air balloons made of paper on which affectionate messages are writtenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/imageBROKER

The perpetrators were quickly identified: Three German women, a mother and her two adult daughters who live near the zoo, came forward on the day of the tragedy. They admitted to having set off several sky lanterns that they had bought on the internet, unaware that they had been banned in 2009 as fire hazards. They have been fined a total of around 20,000 euros for criminal negligent arson. 

The zoo director and his team feel sorry for the perpetrators, rather than angry, he says. Dressen's main focus was to support his team and help them overcome the trauma. Counsellors were on hand quickly for individual and group sessions, which continue today.

Compassion and support

The first bit of good news that came once the fire had died down was the discovery oftwo surviving chimpanzees: A young male and an elderly female managed to hide and escape the flames almost unscathed. They have been nurtured back to health in a secluded area in the zoo. Visitors can see live footage of them on a screen. 

screen on wall of gorilla house showing CCTV footage of the chimpanzees Bally and Limbo
The two surviving chimpanzees can be watched live on a screen by the undamaged gorilla enclosureImage: Rina Goldenberg/DW

Condolence messages came from around the world. Cards arrived from zoos in the United States, where individual zoo employees each took the trouble to write personal messages.

"International media interest was huge," says zoo spokesman Mathea. "We gave interviews to stations in the US and Canada. Even a Chinese broadcaster sent a reporter to investigate whether the sky lantern had been imported from China and whether the perpetrators were Chinese." 

"The immediate tremendous outpouring of grief and support in the city was a big source of consolation," says Dressen. In the days after the fire, the entrance to the zoo turned into a sea of candles, condolence cards, flowers and toys.


Krefeld Zoo main entrance area filled with candles, flowers and toys
On New Year's Day 2020 the entrance to the zoo was quickly flooded with candles, flowers and toysImage: DW/D. Regev

Krefelders love their zoo

"The zoo is a point of identification for Krefeld's 230,000 inhabitants," says city spokesman Christoph Elles. "No child grows up here without visiting the zoo with parents, grandparents and on school outings."

That applies also to Krefeld native Caroline Gappel, who heads the "Friends of Krefeld Zoo" association, which has seen a surge in membership. Gappel speaks fondly of the many trips to the zoo with her grandparents. Now, her five-year-old son Maximilian is a regular there, too. "On New Year's Eve we were there," Gappel recalls. "I asked him, 'Shall we go visit the apes?' But he was tired. 'Not today, we'll go there next time,' he said. It made me so sad when just a day later the building went up in flames and I realized that there would not be a next time." Talking a five-year-old through what happened was difficult, Gappel says, but believes it has helped her come to terms with it too. 

six year old Maximilian pointing to a board showing chimpanzees and donors' names
Maximilian donated a part of his savings to the zoo for the new ape enclosureImage: privat

Maximilian insisted on donating part of his savings to the zoo, as did many other Krefeld children. There was a total of well over €2 million in donations ($2.43 million) this year — a record sum.

The zoo has long been an important economic factor in the western German city, which battles high unemployment of more than 11% — almost double the nationwide average. "The zoo is comparable to a medium-sized company," city spokesman Elles explains. "It has 85 full-time employees. It attracted 320,000 visitors in 2019 from the whole region and as far afield as The Netherlands, and it makes millions through tickets and donations each year." 

Financially Krefeld Zoo would have done well in 2020, despite having to close in March and April due to coronavirus restrictions. In the summer months it saw a surge in visitor numbers. But the second shutdown, amid the new nationwide lockdown that began in early November, has taken a toll on finances and the mood of the employees, who were planning a year-end get-together.



Grand plans for the future

The zoo was quick to decide to invest the donations into the construction of a new ape enclosure: A state of the art construction with in- and outdoor areas in accordance with the guidelines of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA.) The Krefeld Zoo director estimates that the new construction will take up to 10 years to complete and will cost over €20 million.

These plans have been met with vehement criticism from some conservationists.

Animal rights organization PETA collected 30,000 signatures against the Krefeld Zoo plans. "Rather than spending millions on the construction of a new prison for pitiable inmates, the money could have been used to protect their natural habitats in Africa and Asia for many years, which would be a more efficient way to secure the future of these species for the long-term," said PETA spokesperson Yvonne Würtz.

Silverback gorilla Massa
48-year-old Massa died in the flames. He has over 100 offspring in zoos across Europe.Image: Imago Images/M. Wagner

Zoo director Dressen disagrees: Without the direct encounter with threatened species in European zoos, he argues, many people could not be prompted to make donations supporting conservation efforts. He describes the animals in German zoos today as "ambassadors" for their respective endangered species, who generate funding for conservation efforts in other parts of the world. 

Germany has a network of more than 60 zoos, which count over 40 million visitors each year and whose donations finance partnerships with conservation projects across Asia and Africa.

All big apes in Europe's zoos are born and bred in captivity and are distributed via EAZA. The gorillas, orang-utans and chimpanzees that perished in the flames a year ago have over 100 offspring living in zoos around the world.

It is not out of the question that one of them may make his way back to Krefeld.

"That would make us very happy," says Dressen with a smile.