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Real Life

One year since bushfires tore through Mogo Zoo, Australia’s favourite zookeeper finds love

Wedding bells ring for the hero, Chad Staples, who saved his animals in the bushfires.

By Lizzie Wilson
It's been a year since that iconic image of a frightened herd of giraffes shrouded 
in thick smoke desperately escaping the raging bushfires 
at Mogo Wildlife Park was beamed across the world.
At the time, bushfire hero and zookeeper Chad Staples was living apart from his girlfriend Svitlana Pace, who was sitting by the phone at her home in San Diego, praying her brave 
Aussie boyfriend and all his charges were safe.
"It was scary watching on the TV," recalls Svitlana.
"Over the phone, Chad was amazingly calm, which is one of the things I love most about him. He only cared that day about making sure his staff and family were protected, and that the animals were out of danger – he really 
is my hero and my dream man in every way."
Seeing Chad in danger made it clear to Svitlana how much she cared for her Aussie love, and when Chad popped the question, she didn't hesitate to say "yes". The couple now live together at Mogo zoo.
"I proposed on a San Diego beach so her mum and daughter could join us to celebrate the moment," Chad explains.
It was 2016 when Chad was head zookeeper at the Featherdale Sydney Wildlife Park when he first met US-Ukrainian beauty Svitlana and her teenage daughter, who were on holidays in Australia from their home in California.
The happy couple are settling into life at the famous Mogo Wildlife Park. (Image: Cathy & Seline)
"If not for young Stephenie's bucket list to hug a koala, her mum Svitlana and I would never have met!" he beams.
Chad knew he'd found The One when his good mate Kisane, the 12-year-old blackback male gorilla, gave 
a firm nod of approval after meeting the keeper's stunning new bride-to-be.
"The moment he saw Svitlana he was smitten – he's such a big softie! All the animals love her and whenever she's around, their little faces just light up. You can't blame them, she's one very special human," Chad, 41, tells Woman's Day from the couple's home on the NSW South Coast.
"My kids – Macy, 12, twin boys Tate and Levi, nine, and my baby Aria, seven – adore her and their new 'big sister' Stephenie! It's been a wonderful union for everyone, and I've promised they can all be in the wedding party!" he laughs.
Svitlana is proud of Chad and his efforts to protect his animals. (Image: Cathy & Seline)
Settling into life at the famous Mogo Wildlife Park since arriving in September, Svitlana, 40, still pinches herself every day.
"It's breathtaking to be surrounded by so much beauty, and all the animal sounds. 
I never thought I would be woken in the middle of the night by the roar of the lions, 
or that I'd strike up an unlikely friendship with a gorilla named Kapenze, who has a fascination with my painted nails!"
But of all the creatures great and small, just who has won her heart, besides Chad? "Jantan the female orangutan and I have this amazing connection... she responds and reacts like a human – it's uncanny!" she says.
Mogo Zoo during the 2020 bushfires. (Image: Instagram)
With the horror of the bushfires behind them, the couple are now enjoying the simple things in life.
"Like watching our baby giraffe Twiga grow into this magnificent beast – she's over a metre taller than me now," Chad says proudly.
"Our focus is getting married and not offending any of the animals if they don't get an invite! One thing is certain, Jantan 
the orangutan will not be the matron of honour – I have to put my foot down somewhere!"

This time last year

Mogo zoo was surrounded 
by flames, and the staff were defending their beloved property from the blaze.
"We had a plan of attack, we had a heap of water, hessian sacks, buckets… 
Any time there was a flame that took up we were onto it," says Chad.
"It was frightening... I had to make two triple zero calls to tell them it was bad and it was getting on top of us."

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