It’s just one catastrophe out of many, many crises unfolding in Ukraine. With the falling bombs, the constant shelling of civilian areas, and the unceasing gunfire, the invasion has produced more tragedies than anyone could even imagine a month ago. Among the calamity, there’s also the drama of Ukraine’s animals.
They have no place to run, no place to hide, and no way to understand what is going on — the animals in Ukraine’s bombed cities are going through absolute hell (much like the humans around them).
Horace the Asian elephant in Kyiv is so shocked that he had to be put on sedatives and requires round-the-clock attention. Zebras are panicking so hard because of the shelling that at some point, they were running straight into the fences and had to be moved inside. Lemur mothers are so traumatized that they abandon their newborns, leaving zookeepers to care for them themselves.
No one is at ease at Ukraine’s zoos, just like no one is at ease in the whole country. In fact, in some sense, the zoos are a microcosm of the entire country.
Zoos had just begun shifting from the cramped, Soviet-style enclosures to more airy and welfare-based enclosures. The Kyiv Zoo director, Kyrylo Trantin, told the Daily Mail he was working on changing the goal of the zoo, from mere exposure of animals to their reintroduction into their natural habitats — just like Ukraine itself was trying to shift from the former Soviet lifestyle to a more European approach.
Then came the war.
It’s almost impossible to evacuate the animals
Some 2.5 million refugees have already fled Ukraine. Many of them carried their pets, sometimes in makeshift cages or directly in their arms — but carrying wild animals would be a very different story.
Few animals were lucky enough to make it out. Animals from the Save Wild bear sanctuary made it to Poland, where the Poznan Zoo offered to host the bears until the war ends — though it’s hard to say when that will be. Six lions, six tigers, two caracals, and an African wild dog also made it out of war-torn Ukraine and into Poland. Some have been transferred further into Belgium.
But for most animals, transportation is not an option, and thousands of wild animals remain in bombed Ukraine. The zookeepers can just try their best and hope that things will end out alright, but as Russian forces bomb more and more civilian areas, the shelling is getting closer, and supplies are already running thin.
“It’s almost impossible to evacuate animals, because it’s impossible to provide appropriate veterinary service and transportation,” Trantin told Euronews.
“For now, we have food supplies for around ten days,” he added. This was ten days ago.
Some keepers are staying with the animals overnight, but there is little they can do to provide comfort. Some have even moved into the zoos, using benches or other areas not in use by animals as makeshift shelters.
“My mother, who is elderly, my dog and my cat have all moved into my office here,” Trantil tells the Daily Mail.
Most animals have been relocated indoors. Tony, a 47-year-old gorilla (the only one in Ukraine), is one of the few animals who seems relatively undisturbed by the shelling. He’s happy when the keeps come by with fruit, and zoo members say they’ve already begun making their own yogurt for Tony.
But food is running scarce in many parts of Ukraine, and finding food for animals is not only challenging but also dangerous, with the bombing going on. Keepers rush to supermarkets to buy what food they can for the animals, often paying from their own pockets. However, some of them don’t make it back.
Two employees at Harkiv Zoo were killed as they were trying to feed the animals
While the situation in Kyiv and Western Ukraine is critical, in the second-largest town in Ukraine (Kharkiv) and Eastern Ukraine, it’s absolutely disastrous. Kharkiv is under intense bombing for over a week, and civilian areas including hospitals and schools are also targeted; one such bombing killed two zoo workers.
A 48-year-old driver and a 27-year-old engineer were feeding the animals when the bombing started and couldn’t make it back to shelter in time. The two were volunteers. The announcement was made by Oleksandr Feldman, the owner of the Ecopark, on his personal Facebook.
“Yesterday, there was a tragedy in our Ecopark. Two people who managed to get into the park’s territory to feed the animals (it is needed at least once every three days) were killed. They died under mortar and machine gun fire,” Feldman said.
Just four days earlier, he had issued a desperate call for help with feeding the animals at the Ecopark.
“A large number of animals remain in our Ecopark, which is located on the outskirts of the city and has been severely damaged by shelling. Only some of the animals were evacuated or temporarily placed in people’s homes.”
“Many employees of the Ecopark have left [the city] or cannot reach the park. The remaining staff are making a heroic effort to feed and care for all the animals, but their efforts are no longer enough. Therefore, we need volunteers who can get to the Ecopark and spend 1-2 hours there feeding the animals,” the statement said.
The information was also confirmed to the BBC by a worker at Kharkiv Zoo (called Feldman Ecopark). The worker by the name of Marine also described the “surreal” risks the workers take to feed the animals.
“It feels like some children’s game: the first challenge is to make it to the bus, then to look from behind the bushes, to move behind the bus, to see if it’s safe to drive,” she told the BBC.
Over 5,0000 animals live in Feldman Ecopark, including turtles, parrots, capybara, kangaroos, and wolves. For now, there is still some food for them, but with supplies chains completely broken up, it’s unclear how much more they can last — or who will feed them. Still, the employees sense a glimmer of hope, and note that even in this dreadful time, one baby porcupine was miraculously born in the ecopark.
“This is a nightmare that we simply could not imagine, and now it is a reality.”
“But we don’t give up. We are trying to find “windows” in the shelling in order to get into the territory of the Ecopark and feed the animals. We’re trying to take out everyone we can. Thanks to all our many friends who help physically, morally, financially. For us it is very important. We are fighting and will continue to fight for every life.”
Zoos and animal shelters are in big trouble
The centers in Kyiv and Kharkiv are the two largest and most well-funded in the country. It’s hard to imagine what goes on in the other centers across the country. We couldn’t find out what the situation was at the small Zoo in Mariupol, where there is no electricity or running water for days, and residents are forced to melt snow to avoid dehydration. We’re not sure what’s going on in Mykolaiv, a city where Russian and Ukrainian forces are still battling for control, and where cluster bombs have become a regularity. It’s hard to imagine a rosy situation at any of the dozens of zoos and animal centers across Ukraine.
It’s not just wild animals, either. In the Horlivka Shelter for stray dogs, at least 24 dogs were killed by the bombing. The PIF center, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, was extensively damaged by the Russian military, with many dogs and cats killed and trapped under the rubble. In the Borodianka area around Kyiv, over 450 dogs were left without food and water for over a week in the municipal animal shelter. Their fate is unclear at the moment.
Still, some of Ukraine’s carers are braving the hell around them and are trying to do what they can for the animals.
Ivan Rybchenko, 33, is one of the keepers who has chosen to help the zoo rather than join the fighting.
“I’m taking care of giraffes, deer and horses, he said. ‘So there’s no way for me to join territorial defence because they would simply die. I’m afraid that any of the animals in the zoo will be killed,” he told the Daily Mail.
Ukraine’s wild animals are just one of the countless tragedies currently unfolding in the country. For the animals that have remained inside the country (just like for the humans), there’s no clear end to the suffering in sight. The Foreign Affairs Ministry of Ukraine said on March 10 that the Russian army is continuing shelling on zoos and animal shelters in Ukraine.
How to help
The situation is unfolding rapidly and dire, but there are scattered efforts to help the animals and their keepers. Many of the zoos and shelters affected by this are taking donations, though in some cases, it’s only in Ukrainian bank accounts, which can be logistically challenging. Some also take Paypal, and there are also some international efforts to help.