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Spilled zoo doo makes for stinky cleanup

By Meg Jones
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE – The dispatcher's call was nondescript – some sort of spill in the busy Zoo Interchange – so it wasn't until firefighters showed up that they found out the malodorous mess was more than just a fuel leak.

Picture the entire contents of the Milwaukee County Zoo's Monkey Island moat – 2,000 gallons of water mixed with monkey feces, algae, goose dung and pungent bits of food discarded by the island's finicky inhabitants – dumped across three lanes of U.S. 45.

What to do?

For the firefighters of the nearest station, Engine 25 on S. 84th St., they probably wished Tuesday had been their day off.

"This is a first for monkey poop, and I'm laying odds it's the last," said Fire Capt. Ralph Gallow, who has responded to many highway messes in his 20 years as a firefighter.

The simian sludge poured out of a county parks vacuum truck when four hydraulic latches gave way and a door opened, gurgling the dark brown/black mix onto the expressway around 10:45 a.m.

The mess snarled traffic, prompted motorists to plug their noses and closed down the entire southbound section of U.S. 45 and the eastbound I-94 ramp to southbound I-894/U.S. 45 for three hours. All lanes reopened by 2:30 p.m.

When Gallow and his crew pulled up to the scene a Milwaukee County sheriff's deputy told them they were stepping in it. Literally.

"You look at this stuff – it's unbelievable. We probably have a half-mile stretch, three lanes across of monkey (excrement)," Gallow said. "I mean, what do you do with all of it?"

A street sweeper was used to suck up as much as possible before firefighters hosed down the remainder into two drains. Then a bleach solution was sprayed across the highway to neutralize the smell and residual fecal matter.

As for the odor? "Well, we stayed upwind," said Tom Ulatowski, a heavy equipment operator for Engine 25. "It didn't smell too good when you were driving through it."

However, it wasn't the worst the firefighters had whiffed.

"It was not putrid. It wasn't like, 'Oh my God, dead-body-for-a-week-and-a-half in 90-degree heat,' " Gallow said. "It wasn't anything that nasty."

Twice a year, the moat around Monkey Island is drained, scrubbed with bleach and filled with fresh water while the 23 Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, hang out in their inside holding quarters. The monkeys are penned up during the two-day process; otherwise, they could escape by scampering across the dry moat, said Milwaukee Zoo public relations coordinator Jennifer Diliberti.

The moat contents are aired out, then sucked into the vacuum truck and taken to a hazardous waste dump site in Franklin, said Sue Black, county parks director. That's where the truck was heading Tuesday when it dumped the mess.

By the time it's drained, the moat, which the monkeys, ducks, geese and peacocks often use as a commode, can get quite rank. The macaques, which produce about as much daily waste as a 9-month-old human, eat monkey chow, apples, oranges, lettuce and other vegetables.

"It's similar to having a sewage backup in your basement," Diliberti said.

No other vehicles were involved in the mishap, and there were no injuries, said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Kim Brooks.

As for the firefighters, who used 12 gallons of industrial bleach and as much as 7,500 gallons of water to clean up the mess, the call provided a lot of unprintable puns and quips. They carefully cleaned their water hoses – which had been dragged through the muck – washed the monkey feces off their boots and went back to their firehouse in time for a lunch of pork chops, salad and biscuits.

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