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War in Ukraine: what is happening to the animals in Ukraine’s zoos?

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Three of Ukraine’s largest zoos are, or have in the last month, been located in areas under attack from Russia’s military. Kyiv Zoological Park, Kharkiv zoo and the Nikolaev zoo, located in Mykolaiv and less than 100 kilometres from Russian-occupied Kherson, have, over the last couple of weeks each come into close contact with the war in Ukraine.

Kyiv Zoological park, one of the largest zoos in the lands which formerly comprised the Soviet Union, is now, blessedly, no longer under threat. However, prior to the Russian military’s redeployment in Ukraine’s eastern regions, the fighting there was seen to have an obvious impact on the zoos animals.

Animals were being sedated in response to obvious signs of distress. Those that could, were moved underground after it was observed that a herd of zebra had charged headlong into a fence after hearing explosions. A mother lemur, clearly animated and concerned at the noises from without, disregarded the care of its youngster, nearly killing it.

Makeshift shelters were created for many of the animals in Kyiv Zoological Park. Zookeepers, many of whom were unsafe in their homes, moved into the sprawling park, and began taking care of the animals around the clock. Inventive solutions were found for the care of Kyiv’s zoo animals. These included the creation of shelter in an unfinished aquarium.

However, Kyiv’s park did witness huge challenges during it’s period of greatest threat. Food security was obviously a factor and so the park’s executive team decided to stockpile in the event of Russian advances.

For larger animals, such as elephant and giraffe, a move underground was not possible. Zookeepers were therefore regularly deployed in the distraction and protection of these larger animals. Horace, the zoo’s resident Asian elephant, had a 24-hour companion who, when the elephant woke to sounds of shelling, was charged with soothing the animal and feeding it apples.

Some readers may, perhaps, wonder at whether the animals might have been removed from Kyiv. Indeed some were. Bigger cats, those that are the greatest danger if the zoo’s bounds were compromised were moved to enclosures in Poland. However, the zoo’s director stresses, and this is something many of us in the industry of protecting animals knows, that relocating large animals is difficult enough in peacetime. It is nearly a logistical impossibility in war.

What we know about animals and how they deal with stress

No research has been done into the effect of explosions on the psychological state of animals. However, a 2019-published paper on the effect of construction sounds on elephant, giraffe and emu populations may give us some insight.

The research paper noted how each of these animals moved away from the loud sounds and into quieter areas of their enclosure. The giraffe even bunched together, closer to one another, in what the researchers considered as a yearning for greater protection.

We know from the accounts documented from the Kyiv Zoological Park that animal behaviour is hugely influenced by the violence of explosive sounds. Unfortunately, we can only wonder at the long term effect of these traumatising experiences.

Knowing what we do about elephant and the effect trauma can have on their behaviour, this is worrying.

The zoos of Kharkiv and Mykolaiv

While the Kyiv Zoological Park’s hard-working employees deservedly breathe a sigh of relief, those working at Kharkiv zoo and Nikolaev zoo, buckle down for more hardship.

Kharkiv and Mykolaiv stand at either end of the Russian front in Ukraine. The animals and employees there are presently under constant threat from shelling and military advances.

There have been reports, unverified one must add, that certain zoos have been hit by shells, leaving animals dead or roaming the streets. If these stories are true, they are unlikely to be from Kharkiv or Mykolaiv’s zoos.

There are, however, certain chilling, and confirmed reports coming out of these two enclosures. Undoubtedly all that has been described above, with reference to the Kyiv park, is true in Kharkiv and Mykolaiv. However, in these two zoos, closer to the action, the effects are greater felt.

In Mykolaiv’s zoo, food shortages were, in mid-March, already in short supply. The zoo’s directors were encouraging residents to buy tickets to see the zoo, online, in a bid to generate funds that would go toward feeding the zoo’s inhabitants.

In Kharkiv, the situation is even bleaker. The Kharkiv zoo has been in very close proximity with Russian shelling and many of it’s employees, over March, were forced to evacuate the city. Two, brave and caring individuals, however, decided to stay. Their bodies have since been found.

What else is known of Kharkiv zoo’s situation is unclear and difficult to contextualise. However, recent footage, available here, and posted yesterday (21/04/2022), demonstrates the evacuation of animals from what is alleged to be Kharkiv’s zoo. The animals are seen in the backs of vans clearly not long used for the carrying of living creatures.

What can you do?

As has been mentioned, there are a number of difficulties inherent in the management of zoo animals through a period of crisis such as this one. According to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) in an 18th March statement, “Ukrainian zoos are generally still not asking for assistance to relocate animals”.

The logistics of this type of operation are difficult and testing on the animals and there is, perhaps, a sense that taking them across a war-torn country, especially from the Kharkiv which is close to the Ukrainian border with Russia, is taking them out of the frying pan and putting them into the fire.

Securing the wellbeing of zoo staffers and ensuring that the animals have a steady supply of feed is, arguably, the best we can do for the animals at this time. EAZA has started a Ukraine Emergency fund, which you can learn more about here, that aims to provide for these causes. If you want to do something, then this, perhaps, is the best option available.

The role of zoos in modern-day conservation

There may be readers who, reflecting on the future and present state of these enclosure-bound animals, question whether zoos still have a place in the modern era. We have previously written an article on the role zoos have in conservation and the protection of animal species.

If you want to read more about that issue, you can do so here.



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