Glimpse of the Past: Many zoo animals died in 1965 flood

Photo courtesy Blue Earth County Historical SocietyWater filled the Sibley Park Zoo during the 1965 flood, drowning countless animals and putting the entire operation out of business.

The Minnesota River crested just over 29 feet on April 10, 1965, and those who sandbagged, recorded water levels, helped families evacuate homes, made sandwiches, and performed the multitude of tasks needed in a time of crisis, breathed a little easier.

True, there had been flooded basements and roads washed out across the county. True, there had been major damage in LeHillier and west Mankato. Madsen’s Valu Center was described as “a merchandising Venice” as boats rowed its aisles recovering produce, and the high school was an island in a lake — flooded not directly by the river but by geysers of water coming through manhole covers in the parking lot. 

Flood forecasts had been for a crest of 23 feet and officials had thought they were prepared.

One of the saddest stories from those 72 hours of trying to protect the city was the tragedy at the Sibley Park Zoo. Plans had been made to move some of the zoo’s smaller animals to area farms, and for 4- to 5-foot platforms to be set up in the cages of bigger animals.

The river had different plans.  At 2 p.m. April 8, the primary dike at Sibley Park — which held back the Blue Earth River — broke. The park office and the zoo were abandoned. Cages were opened for some of the non-dangerous small animals to escape, and fences were broken down to allow larger animals to move to higher ground.

A fight continued to stabilize the secondary dike at Fifth Street.

A headline in the April 10 Mankato Free Press read “Think Animals in Park Still Okay.” Park officials had ascertained that the water had not reached the bear cage. Even though they were free to move to higher ground, two adult elk stood in neck deep water and two young ones had climbed into their feed trough. Rescuers could not reach the lions, but through a telescope they thought they could see a big cat’s tail swishing.

The  April 12, headline told a different story: “Flood Kills Most Animals in Zoo.” 

On April 11 rescuers used boats to drive the elk and buffalo to higher ground. A female elk, which swam the Minnesota River as her escape route, was seen multiple times wandering through North Mankato.

A skin-diving club, the Indian Aquanauts from Mankato State College, used guide ropes tied to trees as they checked the zoo’s indoor cages. The club’s report was not good.

Twenty-five animals either drowned, died from exposure or simply disappeared in the flood. These included monkeys, foxes, a lynx, a coyote, two timberwolves, a collared peccary (a South American wild pig), an agute pacca (a South American rodent). The zoo’s two lions were found dead in shallow water in their cage — they probably died from exposure to the elements.

Later that month, the small animals that had survived were transferred to Como Park Zoo — four monkeys, two alligators and one coati mundi. One of the monkeys, “Annie,” whose mate had died in the flood, apparently remained in deep grief. Although she joined other Rhesus monkeys, she spent most of her time in a far corner, covering her eyes and sometimes sucking her thumb.

In the early 1970s, the zoo’s small buffalo herd was moved to Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne. and its one surviving bear was relocated to Como. All remnants of the Sibley Park Zoo were gone.

Less than a week after the flood’s destruction, headlines called for a new zoo to be built in a higher area of the park. A group of children in the city began a “Zoo for You” drive. A more formal group, the Mankato Area Zoological Society, was formed in the summer of 1966.

Architectural plans were drawn up for a more modern and inviting zoo. However, a bond issue to help cover the cost was defeated in April 1968.

Sibley Park zoo fans had to wait until the mid-1970s, when the Mankato Exchange Club established the petting zoo.

For more information about historic topics visit or call 507-345-5566.  

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