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Zookeeper crashes car on her way to rescue animals from fire: 'Worst nightmare'

Posted at 5:24 PM, Jun 05, 2023

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — When lead zookeeper Jessica Gring found out the Metro Richmond Zoo was on fire, she jumped into her car and drove to work to help.

During her frantic drive to the zoo Sunday night, she crashed, got out of the car, and started to run the rest of the way toward the animals she's dedicated her life to protect.

A stranger saw the zookeeper and offered to drive her the rest of the way.

"I will be indebted to her for the rest of my life and I don't know if I'll ever get to thank her," Gring said. "But, if you're out there, thank you."

When Gring arrived at the zoo, she was met with "her worst nightmare."

Fire damaged two buildings, including the animal clinic where 10 animals were being housed.

A meerkat died as a result of the fire.

Cradling a rescued penguin, Gring reflected on what she considered the silver lining.

"We are just happy that we have all of these guys right here and that's all that matters," she said. "We'll figure the rest out."

Jessica Gring
Jessica Gring

Gring credited Metro Richmond Zoo Director Jim Andelin, who lives on the property, for rescuing the animals from the fire.

"He just really went above and beyond last night," she said. "We're just so fortunate for him here."

Andelin said he heard an explosion, saw the flames, and jumped into action.

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"Just trying to do what you have to do and get the animals safe," he said. "I actually broke [a] window out and there was an armadillo down in this area."

In addition to the armadillo, Andelin said he also brought birds, a kangaroo, a fruit bat, and a one-month-old African penguin to safety.

"After last night we've decided to go with the name Phoenix. We feel like that's an appropriate name for [the penguin chick] now," Gring said.

Much like the bird of myth behind Phoenix the penguin's name, Gring promises the Metro Richmond Zoo too, will rise from the ashes.

"We're a very strong group of people," she said. "And we love these animals. And we love each other. And we'll get through it."

The zoo reopened to guests on Monday, the morning after the fire.

As for the investigation into the fire, the fire marshal said it's not being considered suspicious but the cause remains under investigation.

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