Dozens of reptiles were killed after an “extremely ferocious” fire at a zoo in West Lothian, Scotland, today.
The blaze is feared to have claimed the lives of all the animals in the tropical enclosure except two dwarf West African crocodiles. The pair dodged death by submerging themselves underwater in their pond as the blaze took hold in the early hours.
The animals, which can grow to 5ft (1.5m) in length, were eventually plucked to safety by firefighters at Five Sisters Zoo in Polbeth.
The fire started at about 3:50am. Fire crews managed to stop it spreading but it is understood that all the animals in the reptile house, which included tortoises, turtles, lizards, geckos, snakes and iguanas, have died – along with one of the zoo’s two “beloved otters”.
Two meerkats had to be put down because of their injuries while nine more were missing and feared dead last night. The fire is not thought to be suspicious and inquiries are believed to have centred on the heating system in the reptile house.
Staff at the privately-owned zoo were yesterday carrying out an inventory to confirm the exact death toll.
Zoo spokeswoman Lesley Coupar said: “We are devastated. It’s the worst nightmare. We’re in the business of rescuing animals, giving a safe haven to animals. It’s just the worst tragedy.”
She said the fire was “obviously extremely ferocious” and that “everything has perished” in the reptile house.
Ms Coupar said: “Otters and meerkats were housed near to the blaze and the crocodiles. We do know that the crocodiles have survived, they were submerged in water in their pond.”
“The owners are obviously distraught, as are we all. We’re all animal lovers,” added Ms Coupar.
The zoo describes itself as the top wildlife, animal and exotics attraction in West Lothian, housing more than 130 species from around the world. Formed in 2005, last year it celebrated the arrival of meerkat pups and the completion of a bear enclosure for three former circus bears rescued from a life of trauma in Belgium.
The £80,000 fundraising campaign to build the bears’ enclosure included donations from the actress Joanna Lumley.
“Firefighters were able to help rescue two dwarf crocodiles and an otter but sadly some animals have perished in the fierce fire,” said a Scottish Fire and Rescue Service spokesman.
The fire service said 50 firefighters and 11 fire engines and specialist appliances were involved with bringing the blaze under control at its height. No zoo staff are thought to have been injured in the incident.