TEMPERANCE - Fire retardant foam still dripped from the charred walls of a barn at Nature's Creek Petting Zoo yesterday morning, but Peggy Evola could not yet bring herself to walk inside.
"They were friends. They all had names," Mrs. Evola said of the scores of exotic birds, primates, reptiles, fish, and mammals that perished early yesterday in a blaze that killed a third of the animals in Mrs. Evola's privately owned zoo.
Blackened and misshapen cages and fish tanks poked out from above the devastation. Inside, the remains of between 50 and 100 monkeys, alligators, tortoises, foxes, parrots, and other animals lay exposed to the cold Michigan air that ultimately may have contributed to their deaths.
Bedford Fire Chief John Bofia said the cause of the accidental blaze was under investigation but appeared to have started near the finished barn's furnace.
Fire crews from Temperance, Lambertville, and Erie were called to the private zoo behind the Evolas' home on Crabb Road, just north of Erie Road, at about 1:50 a.m. but arrived after the flames already had spread through the building and burned through the roof.
"By the time we got there, it was fully involved," Chief Bofia said.
Firefighters were able to help Rick Evola move some nearby animals safely away from the structure, but they were unable to enter the barn to attempt any rescues, the chief said.
"When I came out of the house, I thought I could pull them out, but it was too late," said Mr. Evola, who left for his regular job as a drywall contractor yesterday afternoon after spending the morning saving what animals he could and mourning the rest.
The Evolas opened their private zoo in 1998 shortly after the two animal lovers were married. Mrs. Evola had owned a pet store in Monroe, while Mr. Evola had grown up on the small farm that the two now call home.
Caring for their private menagerie was a costly hobby but one that kept the couple united, Mr. Evola said.
"Six out of seven days, it's nothing but a grind going to work, but you come home and the animals are so happy to see you. We would go out and eat right there with them," Mr. Evola said.
The petting zoo, which regularly hosts school and children's groups, is closed over the winter and wasn't scheduled to reopen to the public until May 1, Mrs. Evola said.
When the zoo is closed, the Evolas take small groups of animals to show at area schools where children can interact with them.
Mrs. Evola said recovering from the blaze is going to take much effort, both physically and financially.
"It's going to be hard on us to keep working without breaking down," Mrs. Evola said as she stared blankly into the rubble behind her home.
The zoo's remaining 200 animals, a group varying from a camel and buffalo to ducks and pigeons, still have to be fed and cared for.
Mr. Evola estimated the value of the lost animals at perhaps $100,000, but said the animals were not insured.
No estimate of the value of the barn was available.
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:
or 419-724-6091.41.77877 -83.56882