Animals | Uplifting | Wildlife

Zookeeper Risks Death Protecting His Animals From Blazing Inferno

This week a wildfire tore across Florida, forcing 7,000 residents to evacuate. Homes caught in the path of the blaze were destroyed, and when it kept burning for a second day the Ngala Wildlife Preserve in Tampa knew they had to evacuate as well.

But clearing out the zoo, which is home to more than 40 animals including camels, leopards and a giraffe, is not easy.

Donovan Smith, one of the zoo's owners, was busy overseeing the evacuation when the fire finally reached Ngala. While his life was threatened, he refused to run away and leave his animals behind, pulling off an animal rescue that's making headlines around the world.

Most of the animals were already safe by the time firefighters arrived, but a few were frightened by all the commotion and refused to get into their trailers.

A panther, a leopard and a 5,000 pound rhino were some of the holdouts that were too frightened to be evacuated.

For Smith, who had raised Walter since he was a baby, leaving the animal to fend for himself was not an option, so he faced the fire and risked death to protect him.

Click the next page to read how Smith survived the inferno!

To reach Walter's pen, Smith had to ride his ATV through the path of the fire. As he raced through, hot embers from beside his path stung him.

Smith told USA Today it was "like Armageddon."

"I raced through a literal funnel of fire," he said, "you could see the skin blistering on my arms and legs." Doctors would later confirm that Smith received second-degree burns during the rescue.

When he finally reached Walter's pen, he hosed it down to protect the rhino. Firefighters told Smith to leave, but he refused until the pain was unbearable.

In one very scary moment, when Smith worried Walter would charge at the firemen, he held a huge rhino gun, ready to put Walter down if he needed to.

Thankfully, this smart and gentle creature knew he was being rescued. Now both Smith and Walter are doing fine thanks to his bravery.

"I live in the now, and I'm grateful I was there to do the right thing," he says.

"NGALA staff teamed together today to save all the animals!" the park wrote on Facebook.

"The structures and facilities fared well, the property is burned pretty bad, Mother Nature will rebound."

Smith and Ngala Wildlife Park both need support to recover, so donate to their GoFundMe pages if you can.

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