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REBUILD OUR TOWNS: These zoo keepers stopped at nothing to save their animals when bushfires struck

‘Our animals are family – we had to save them’

By Lizzie Wilson
It's an iconic image from the bushfires that has both touched and broken the hearts of millions across the world. A frightened herd of giraffes shrouded in thick smoke as they stood powerless and trapped while the fires raged around them.
Millions of animals have been affected by the catastrophic fires that ripped through our beautiful country. Many perished, but for the giraffes and other animals of Mogo Wildlife Park on the NSW South Coast, their story of survival is nothing short of a miracle.
Dedicated zookeeper Chad Staples and his team chose to stay with the 200 animals at the zoo, putting their own lives at risk too during the animals' time of need.
"It was like Armageddon meets the Apocalypse – I never want to see that again in this lifetime," Chad, 40, tells Woman's Day back home at the 65-hectare property.
"The alert came to the Mogo community to evacuate and get to the beach, but there was no way I was going to leave the animals behind.
Dedicated zoo keeper Chad stayed put in the fires, risking his life to save his animals. Image: Chad Staples
"We had a plan and our number one priority was the safety of both the animals and us."
As a zookeeper with 23 years' experience, Chad was optimistic.
"We began watering everything at 6am and went through 200,000 litres of water from the recycling plant we've set up here," he explains.
"We then moved the big animals – including seven lions, two orangutans and four gorillas – out of harm's way into their night dens. It's like an enclosure within another enclosure where they sleep.
"We loaded them up with their favourite treats and they went in without a single protest. It's like checking into a fully serviced apartment!"
Meanwhile, the herd of giraffes was left to roam in a cordoned off space that had been fireproofed. Sticking together, they had each other's backs.
"The animal world is extraordinary how they rally together," Chad explains. "Throughout the entire operation we kept talking to them, and they knew they were in good hands."
With time running out, the keepers packed up hundreds of smaller animals, including the cheeky red pandas and some mischievous monkeys, each in their own container.
"We put them in my house, where they'd be safest. Luckily, my kids live with their mum in Newcastle, and I'm single – imagine how I would explain my noisy new house guests!" laughs Chad.
This image of a frightened herd of giraffes trapped by the fires moved the nation to tears. Image: Chad Staples
The damage and subsequent bill from the bushfires is vast – almost 80 per cent of the 65 hectares has been burned. While the rebuild in Mogo is going to be slow, relief comes in knowing every animal survived.
Now Chad's attention has shifted to not just the endangered animals but the thousands of native critters who've been injured.
His next project – inspired by his children Maci, 11, twin boys Tate and Levi, eight, and six-year-old daughter Aria – is building a fully-equipped veterinary hospital on-site at Mogo Wildlife Park to care for and rehabilitate native creatures.
"My kids think their dad is pretty cool for saving the animals, but they asked, 'What about the koalas?'" he says.
"Our animals are family - we had to save them," says Chad. Image: Chad Staples
"It got me thinking. One of my best mates, Sam, runs the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Hospital and he's inspired me. We've already begun construction, but it's going to take a lot of funding.
"We have an established wildlife foundation set up and all donations will go directly towards the building of this veterinary hospital, with a view to developing new spaces for when they are put back in the wild.
"Every person who donates is gifting a lifeline for these animals – for future generations. It's humbling how much the world cares and I want to be among those who made a difference. If I could talk to all the animals hurt in the fires, I'd tell them not to give up, we're going to get you better, have you re-homed and keep you safe."

How to help Mogo and the South

•To help build the private hospital for native animals at Mogo Wildlife Park, visit mogozoo.com.au/foundation or call Chad on (02) 4474 4930.
•To assist people on the NSW South Coast affected by the bushfires, donate to the Eurobodalla Disaster Relief Fund. https://www.esc.nsw.gov.au/inside-council/council/grants/eurobodalla-disaster-relief-fund
•The Eurobodalla region where Mogo is located is packed full of beautiful beaches, great fishing spots and wonderful walks. Your Eurobodalla journey starts at Batemans Bay and meanders its way through Mogo, Moruya, Bodalla, Narooma and Tilba. Visit eurobodalla.com.au or talk to a local at a visitor centre: Batemans Bay 1800 802 528 or Narooma (02) 4476 2881.
•Hit the road! Drop in to Ulladulla and pick up Australia's best pie at the famous Hayden's Pies. Try the chunky steak, dripping with homemade gravy. 2/116 Princes Hwy, Ulladulla, haydenpies.com.au
•Enjoy a few nights away in the gorgeous community of Batemans Bay, whose generous locals have supported the bushfire victims from their neighbouring communities like Mogo. batemansbayaccommodation.com.au
•Don your lycra for the ride of your life! JetBlack Wild Wombat MTB Challenge is a two-day cycling event (Aug 1-2)showcasing the Eurobodalla region. visitnsw.com/destinations/south-coast/batemans-bay-and-eurobodalla/mogo/events/jetblack-wild-wombat-mtb-challenge
•This one is for the sweet tooths! Drop in and say hi to the friendly staff at the Mogo Lolly Shop.
30 Sydney St, Mogo, (02) 4474 0431, facebook.com/themogolollyshop
•On your travels, take a detour to the famous Nerriga Hotel, where you'll experience good old-fashioned pub grub. Say g'day to the wonderful owners Phil and Sarah. nerrigahotel.com

Rebuild our towns

There's not a single Australian who hasn't had their hearts broken by the horrific bushfires that have swept through our country. The road to rebuild will be long but as a nation we will: brick by brick, fence by fence.
Bauer Media launched this campaign to help our neighbours in their time of need.
Each week Bauer's portfolio of magazines (print and digital), led by Woman's Day, will shine a spotlight on a town sharing information with our readers about how they can help, from the best fundraisers to donate to that specifically benefit the locals, to products they can buy from that town or region that support small businesses there.
We'll highlight the farmers who need fencing supplies, the schools which are short of books and pencils, the yoga school that needs mats or how to plan a getaway to the region when the time is right to bolster their local tourism industry.
The Rebuild Our Towns campaign is centred on the fact that practical help doesn't have to cost a fortune.
Our love and thoughts go out to every person, but actions speak louder than words, so join us to make a difference and help our heartland heal.

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