They came 507 miles by truck, 13 of them packed in small plastic pet crates, a flood-ravaged home behind them and a capital city before them.
The African penguins from Minot, N.D., waddled into their public display at Como Zoo in St. Paul on Thursday morning, just a few of the approximately 230 animals evacuated from the Roosevelt Park Zoo that now is under 4 to 14 feet of water.
They zipped around a 5-foot-deep pool, slid down faux rockwork and loudly hee-hawed like donkeys (hence their colloquial name, jackass penguins) as senior zookeeper Allison Jungheim slipped silvery fish into their gaping beaks.
The penguins, which include the Como-hatched male, Squirt, join three bears and 13 frogs evacuated to Como Zoo. The penguins were the first to go on display; the bears are quarantined and will follow in about a week.
"The last two weeks have been a crazy nightmare," said David Merritt, director of the Minot zoo.
All of the zoo's 21 acres are under water because of the flooded Souris River that cuts through the grounds. Merritt thinks it could be a month before anyone is allowed back on the premises. The animals were moved to a nearby warehouse-turned-zoo and some to nearby farms. Three giraffes and six big cats went to a wildlife park near Wichita, Kan., and other animals to zoos throughout the Dakotas.
"It was exhausting," said Merritt, still sounding frazzled. "I'm amazed that we were able to do it."
The zoo reached out to Como because of staff connections and Como's own African penguin colony. Como quickly said yes. The bears arrived June 2. The penguins and poison dart frogs arrived June 23.
The 29 extra animals mean extra work, food, time and cost -- all during the zoo's busiest tourist season.
"Initially, it was a little shocking," Jungheim said.
But she said the zoo worked to creatively schedule staff to cover all of the work, and won't blink if Minot can't reimburse the cost, a matter that has not been discussed.
"If we were in that situation, we'd want someone to help us out," Jungheim said.
It's unclear when the animals will return to Minot, and Jungheim is prepared to house them for several months.
Merritt said many of the zoo's two dozen buildings will need minor to major repairs, and some could require demolition. The zoo's new, partially completed $1.7 million entrance building also was devastated by floodwaters that have reached heights not seen in 130 years. Nearly 12,000 people have been displaced by the flood.
The bears, a male grizzly named Goldie and sister brown bears Sandy and Judy, are expected to go on display at Como within a week. Jungheim said they will be especially fun because they are more active, curious and playful than the zoo's two polar bears.
Under a blazing afternoon sun in dripping humidity Thursday, Goldie sat on his massive haunches and slouched against the concrete wall in his quarantine pen as a sprinkler showered droplets of water onto his head. But when Jungheim and two visitors peeked in, he ambled over to gawk as Judy and Sandy sleepily crept from their indoor dens to investigate the slow motion commotion.
"They were very accommodating," Merritt said. "I can't tell you how lucky we are and how happy we are."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib