The flooding in Duluth ravaged the Lake Superior Zoo, drowning at least 13 animals and causing major damage. Yet if it hadn't been for one alert driver, the death toll at the zoo may have been much higher -- and Feisty the seal may have made her escape.

At least 11 barnyard animals and two birds drowned because of the flooding that forced zoo staff to chase down Berlin the polar bear and allowed Feisty to swim onto Grand Avenue.

Zoo officials, however, may not have discovered this until much later had Donald Melton not been awake after feeding his baby in the middle of the night. Melton, who lives near the zoo, said he was curious about Facebook posts discussing flooding and street closures near his home and decided to drive around and investigate.

Melton was near Grand Avenue about 3 a.m. when he saw what he thought was an injured dog on the side of the road and pulled over. When he discovered it wasn't a dog, "I was dumbfounded. The first thing that came to my mind is 'otter.' "

He quickly realized that it was a seal that he was sure had escaped from the zoo. "I didn't know the zoo had seals," he said.

He kept his headlights on Feisty while he tried to get help. He flagged down a fire crew that helped watch over Feisty until zoo staff arrived.

For zoo officials, Feisty's escape was the first they heard of the zoo's troubles. The staff has plans in place for all kinds of emergencies and regularly practices drills, said Susan Wolniakowski, the zoo's director of guest services. With waters rising Tuesday evening in Duluth, they had a security guard keep watch until late in the night. The creek that runs through the zoo was running high, Wolniakowski said, but it was nothing major.

After the guard left, the creek became blocked. "Within a split second, everything went haywire," she said.

The water rose high enough that it filled up the seal exhibit, allowing Feisty to swim out. Berlin the polar bear didn't escape but was sighted at the top of her exhibit. Zoo staff used a tranquilizer gun to sedate Berlin and move her to a safe area.

Zoo officials expect some bridges to be washed out, as well as major parts of the polar exhibit. Wolniakowski said they're not sure when the zoo will be reopened.

All but one of the animals in the barnyard exhibit -- sheep, lambs, goats and a beloved donkey named Ashley -- died in the flooding. The zoo also lost a snowy owl and a turkey vulture and possibly a raven; zoo officials didn't know whether it died or escaped.

"That was the most tragic aspect of the flood," Wolniakowski said. "It's just been a devastating day to lose so many animals at once like that. They're all our family."

The polar bear and seals are being moved to the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul. Animal care director Peter Pruett, in Duluth, said the move to Como is precautionary and in the best interest of the animals. KBJR-TV in Duluth reported that other animals, including brown bears and lions, will be quarantined in the animal care building at the Lake Superior Zoo.

Masako Hirsch • 612-673-4263