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Zoo to You comes roaring back on year after blaze killed animals

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Zoo to You curator Angela Boelk sits on a slatted wooden bench and gently lifts a tiny feeding bottle to the mouth of an eager baby porcupine sporting a new tuft of prickly bristles. Patches of bright purple flowers from a memorial garden surround Boelk and her porcupine friends.

It’s been about a year since the multipurpose building at Zoo to You burned down, killing scores of its animals, but group officials say new life is being breathed into the Paso Robles-based wildlife educational program.

Namely, the fire allowed Zoo to You to reconnect with the local community as volunteer support poured in.

“It was … horrible and devastating,” Director David Jackson said of the blaze. “But we’re moving on — doing what we do and focusing on our mission so we didn’t have to focus on the tragedy.”

The program, which has 12 employees and a dozen volunteers, takes creatures in as rescues and introduces them to children in schools.

The April 2009 fire killed the program’s four main show animals, which died from smoke inhalation, and about three dozen smaller creatures such as frogs.

Volunteers built the memorial garden shortly after the fire to remember the lost lives of the sloth, monkey, alligator, loris and other critters.

Authorities determined an electrical battery backup device overheated in an office area, destroying “basically our entire center of operation,” Jackson said.

News reports after the fire left some people thinking that Zoo to You was over, Jackson said, but “we were at school the very next day.”

However, coping with the loss has been a long process, Jackson said, as were the many months spent on recovering schedules and data from various laptop computers not destroyed in the fire.

But help was always on hand. Various businesses and charities pitched in to assist in clearing the building’s charred shell.

“So many people in the community came in and said, ‘We’ll donate and repaint and build,’ ” Jackson said. “There were trucks and trailers helping us clean up.”

About $40,000 in donations has also come in to help rebuild and replace lost enclosures and supplies. Contributions were made by private donors, zoo associations and even SeaWorld. Insurance replaced other goods, such as animal supplies and work computers, Jackson said.

Through the new connections, the group is now a part of the North County Earth Day event set for Sunday, and it has plans to get more involved with the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce.

“Of course the grief is never gone, but wonderful things have happened,” Jackson said.Another effort is the new multipurpose building in the works — a roughly 2,200-square-foot structure featuring a sustainable design with straw bale construction and a solar energy system.

Plans call for 10 solar huts — designed for desert animals to keep warm — to be constructed behind the building.

That will save energy because now they keep warm on electric heating pads, which use a lot of electricity, said Ken Haggard, principal architect with San Luis Sustainability Group.

Having a new building will help bring in more visitors to the site, Jackson added, because then the group will have public bathrooms and a classroom — better suiting it for tours.

The multipurpose building is expected to be built within the next year, he said.

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