As tension mounts by the day, there is hardly a sector of Ukrainian society that hasn’t been affected by the ongoing crisis in the country. Not even Ukraine’s zoo animals are immune to the effects of political upheaval.
Amid the crisis, government funding for Ukraine’s zoos has dried up and these facilities are quickly running out of money to buy important supplies such as food and antibiotics.
In fact, more than 9,500 animals in zoos from Simferopol to Kiev are at risk for life threatening health problems like starvation.
The dilapidated zoos — some in existence for more than 100 years — were struggling long before the protests surged in Kiev and President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power.
The facilities deteriorated after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the animals have lived in grim conditions ever since. Most notably, the Kiev Zoo was thrown out of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria in 2007 following its controversial treatment of a female bear, who was euthanized after exhibiting stress symptoms after she was moved to a new pen.
"The Kiev Zoo will never attain any basic standards, it's so far removed from any zoo in Europe," John Ruane of the British animal rights group Naturewatch told the Associated Press in March.
Kiev attempted to improve the situation by hiring Oleksiy Tolstoukhov as the new zoo director in October. He was to look after the more than 2,000 animals left in the facility.
City officials say 50 animals have died since Tolstoukhov took over, but some scientists estimate the number is closer to 250. Tolstoukhov has heavily defended the zoos operations.
"It's not as bad as they say," Tolstoukhov said, according to the AP. "In all the zoos, including in Europe, animals don't live a million years. They also die and get sick."
Deteriorating Zoo Conditions
While questionable operating standards may not be new, conditions at the Kiev Zoo and others have gotten noticeably worse since the start of the crisis and the looming possibility of conflict with Russia.
"Our animals are not fighting for power, they do not share anyone's political views, they just want to live," Kharkiv Zoo director Alexey Grigoriev, wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk posted on the zoo’s website in March.
The zoo in Kharkiv, which has survived two world wars, began facing food shortages in early March when funding disappeared.
"Along with the whole country, our zoo is living through difficult and terrifying times," Grigoriev also said in the statement.
After making a public appeal, local citizens donated enough money and food for the zoo to at least stay afloat, but state funding for the country’s zoos is not likely to become a priority anytime soon.
Zoo Money Redirected to Defense Programs
Yatsenyuk, announced in March that US$697 million would be reallocated from government programs — including social aid — and instead put towards the country’s defense spending.
“Today we are talking about protecting our country,” Yatsenyuk said in a statement announcing the budget changes. “All other expenses are not worth anything if the Ukrainian Army, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are not able to protect the state.”
As the government’s focus shifted towards military spending, funding for non-essential services has been particularly affected.
Zoo Funding Slashed
Money for zoos was one of the first expenses to go, according to Lionel de Lange, the Ukrainian director of international environmental conservation group, Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization’s (LAEO) — which has taken on the task of saving the facilities.
“There’s no assistance for these zoos at all,” de Lange told VICE News, in reference to the lack of government funding. “That’s not going to change in the near future at all, the government doesn’t have money.”
If there is someone who knows a thing or two about the dire state of Ukraine’s zoos, it’s de Lange.
Since establishing LAEO's Ukrainian chapter in March, the South African transplant has quickly become the go-to man if you operate a cash strapped zoo in the crisis rattled country.
De Lange was looking for a way to make himself useful while the country he now calls home struggled to maintain stability. He was mulling over volunteer opportunities when he came across an article about starving animals residing in the 114-year-old zoo located just six miles from his home in the town of Nikolaev.
De Lange did not previously consider himself an animal activist, but as a young South African soldier during the country’s border war with Angola he witnessed firsthand how animals could get caught up in the throes of war.
“Elephants would be walking into minefields, animals would be blown up and shot dead,” said de Lange.
Between this experience and the reports about the local zoo, de Lange said he couldn’t sleep at night knowing the conditions the animals were living in at the Nikolaev facility.
He immediately reached out to the international LAEO headquarters — or The Earth Organization (TEO) as it’s referred to in the U.S. — and began working directly with the organization’s president Barbara Wiseman to try and save Ukraine’s zoos.
“We had started receiving calls and emails pleading with us to do something [about the zoos],” Wiseman told VICE News.
While her awareness of the situation in Ukraine was growing, it was de Lange who pushed her to take action. He contacted Wiseman and provided her with research detailing just how grave the situation was.
TEO is a conservation organization that largely focuses on rehabbing animal populations, specifically those affected by conflict. The organization was founded by South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony in 2003 after he executed an animal rescue mission early in the Iraq War.
The rescue initiative focused on rehabilitation of the Baghdad Zoo, where dehydration, starvation and neglect resulted in the death of more than 500 animals in just nine days.
During the mission in Baghdad, Anthony had difficulty getting support from international organizations and realized there was a need for animal rescue services in conflict zones.
“He realized that this really is a situation that has been utterly ignored, with no one speaking for the animals during conflict,” Wiseman said of the founder who died in 2012.
The organization has gone on to provide support for animal populations in various conflict zones, including the Northern White Rhino which was put at risk due to the conflict between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army. TEO has even proposed a resolution to the UN and The Hague to make the willful and intentional destruction of environment and animals a war crime. Wiseman said the proposal would also give wildlife preserves and zoos the same protection status as schools and churches in conflict zones.
De Lange and Wiseman now work together to salvage and provide support for Ukraine’s zoos. De Lange spends his days coordinating with zoo directors to assess their needs. With funding coming mostly from US donors, he then purchases and delivers supplies to these facilities.
“I’m just constantly putting a lot of little fires out everywhere,” de Lange said of his schedule, which can take him to zoos in Kiev and other cities multiple times a week.
The zoo currently keeping de Lange up at night is one that technically is no longer a part of Ukraine — it’s a zoo on the verge of collapse in Crimea and it may add border runs to his already lengthy to-do list.
When Crimea opted to annex itself from Ukraine and become a part of Russia, the Ukrainian government cut off funding for public services and froze bank accounts in the region, leaving its zoo with about 65 big cats to feed and no cash.
According to de Lange, the zoo has only three days’ worth of food for the animals that require about 1,000 pounds of meat a day. The director has appealed to the Russian government for funding, but in the event those efforts come up short de Lange is waiting to run more than 6,000 pounds of meat across the border.
He already has a farmer on standby with a herd of sheep to slaughter at a moment’s notice.
De Lange said he will need about $9,000 for the initial mission in Crimea — that’s in addition to the $2,800 a day he currently needs to keep the country’s zoos afloat.
Usually the summer months would see a bit of a relief as the zoo warmer weather brings more visitors and ticket sales. However, de Lange is not very optimistic about this year’s prospects. He has already observed smaller crowds than in years past.
“There’s no money in the country at the moment,” said de Lange. “Everybody’s feeling the effect, and it’s going to cause more problems because we need [ticket earnings] to pay for it,”
This may only worsen as citizens feel the effects of new austerity measures outlined in a bill that the government agreed to last month in order to receive much needed financial aid from the IMF. Cuts to natural gas subsidies, police layoffs and property tax hikes are all expected in the coming months.
“The country is on the edge of economic and financial bankruptcy,” Yatsenyuk said about the legislation.“This package of laws is very unpopular, very difficult, very tough. Reforms that should have been done in the past 20 years.”
De Lange only manages to keep the facilities stocked with a day or two worth of supplies.
The immediate crisis is his main concern, but de Lange’s goal is to ensure the zoos have a larger stockpile of goods, as well as funds put away, in the event that the crisis worsens or war strikes, or if a completely different problem arises in the future.
“The war can stop tomorrow or a war might never happen,” he said, “but Ukraine still won’t have money to feed the animals.”