Pets, horses rescued, bison shot amid rising floodwaters in central PA

The remnants of Tropical Storm Lee are wreaking havoc across parts of northeast and south-central Pennsylvania.

Widespread flooding along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries has forced many people, and their pets, to flee their homes.

In the Harrisburg area water rescuers picked up at least six dogs with their owners on boats and shelters were making accomodations for people and their pets. One man peddled away from his riverfront home with his cat in a carrier on his handlebars. Now that's love!

But some animal caretakers at the York County SPCA - which is providing housing for pets of flood victims - said they fear for tethered animals who may have been left behind.

The owner of the Harrisburg Carriage Company, located on City Island in the middle of the Susquehanna River hustled yesterday to get his six horses off the island as the floodwaters lapped at the barn's edge.

The bison at ZooAmerica 20 miles away in Hershey were not so lucky.

The two bison - Ryan and Esther - were trapped in their pen as the water from Spring Creek quickly rose around them. Zoo keepers, who evacuated other animals from the low-lying area near Hersheypark, said they had no choice with the depth and speed of the water.

But that didn't stem the critics who voiced their anger across cyberspace, in blogs on Facebook and in the comment sections of area newspapers. The zoo officials tell me inspectors from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will be coming out to access the situation after the water recedes.

Here is my story from today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

HARRISBURG - Rather than let the animals drown in Tropical Storm Lee's rapidly rising floodwaters, zookeepers at Hersheypark's ZooAmerica shot their two beloved American bison to death - and prompted howls of anger across cyberspace.

ZooAmerica said in a statement that "unprecedented flooding" trapped the 2,000-pound animals in their pen Wednesday night, while keepers were able to evacuate other zoo inhabitants.

"Unfortunately, no one could anticipate a weather event that went from inches of rain to feet of flooding in a matter of a few short minutes," the zoo said in its statement. "Faced with the prospect of watching the extended suffering of the bison and their eventual death due to drowning, the zoo staff chose the most humane path possible and euthanized the bison."

That explanation did not sit well with commenters on websites across central Pennsylvania - some of whom remembered seeing the bison as children or decried the loss of two majestic symbols of the American West.

Some asked why the zoo, which said it had two days' notice to prepare, had not tried to relocate the two bison sooner.

By Thursday evening, a Facebook page, "Remembering the ZooAmerica Bison," had popped up, with 2,200 online visitors "liking" it, along with numerous postings second-guessing the zoo's actions.

A zoo spokeswoman said the depth and speed of the waters from nearby Spring Creek overwhelmed zookeepers as they tried to take as many as 200 animals to higher ground.

"We had a plan, and we put it in effect, but the circumstances were beyond anything that we had ever seen," said Mindy Bianca, public relations director for Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co.

She said all the zoo's other animals were accounted for.

Bison, commonly known as buffalo, were hunted to near extinction in the 18th century, leaving fewer than 1,000 still alive in 1900. Prolonged conservation efforts helped rescue the bison herds, which now number roughly 200,000 and inhabit private ranches, wildlife refuges, national parks, and tribal lands.

David Grazian, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist, who is writing a book on zoos, said facilities like ZooAmerica go through a rigorous accreditation process.

"The animals get the best possible care," said Grazian. "I've visited zoos across the country, and the people who work [at accredited zoos] are the most caring people I have ever met."

ZooAmerica, whose 200 animals represent 60 different North American species from martens to mountain lions, sits next to Hersheypark theme park, which also experienced flooding that left many rides under water.

Word of the bisons' fate spread rapidly among other animal keepers. On an island in the Susquehanna River, the owner of a horse carriage company was taking no chances with his animals.

With water already six feet deep on the infield of the Harrisburg Senators stadium next door, Fred Lanke, owner of Harrisburg Carriage Co. was hustling to get his six horses onto trailers and to flee the island. The worst of the flooding was expected to reach the area Friday night.

As he nudged Guinness, a 17-year-old Standardbred, onto a trailer, Lanke said, "I'll err on the side of caution after what happened to the bison at Hersheypark."

He said it was the first time in 29 years of operation that his company had had to relocate horses to spare them from a flood.

"There's no sense stressing out the livestock," he said, staring out the barn door at the rain pummeling the island for a fourth day. "This was a safe haven."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or