Mykolaiv zoo caught in the crossfire, 4,000 wild animals trapped

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Around 4,000 animals from Mykolaiv Zoo in Ukraine trapped in crossfire (Photo: Nikolaev Zoo website)

Mykolaive: the Mykolaiv Zoo presents itself as the best in Ukraine, but now the 4,000 wild animals within it are trapped in a whole new sense, with Russian rockets landing among them. As the sirens of air raids sound through the city, which holds a key river through which Russian troops must continue their push towards Ukraine’s premier Black Sea port, Odessa, a leopard nervously brushes against the bars of its cage.

It’s hard to say whether the Amur leopard, ‘the rarest subspecies’ of the big cat, is rattled by the piercing sound or the unusual sight of strangers, more than three weeks after the zoo closed in November. visitors, said zoologist Viktor Dyakonov.

The first rocket to land at the zoo on February 27 ripped off the walkway between the tiger and polar bear enclosures, and is now on display in the zoo’s museum, which was founded more than 120 years ago. No one was injured, neither among the staff nor among the animals. But the episode was “very stressful”, with a tank battle 600 meters (650 yards) from the zoo, museum director Volodymyr Topchyi said. Since then, three other rockets have landed in the zoo, including one in an aviary.

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The other two landed near the zoo’s administrative offices and staff said they were cluster munitions which the Russians call Uragan or “Hurricane”. The UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the use of cluster munitions by Russian forces, notably in northeastern Ukraine, a type of weapon prohibited by the Oslo Convention of 2008 that Moscow never signed.

Cluster munitions spread explosive bombs over a wide area, making them an inaccurate weapon that can cause serious injury to civilians. As many bombs do not explode on impact, they can cause civilian death and maiming long after hostilities have ended.

– Too risky to evacuate –

Of the approximately 400 species in the zoo, nearly half are on the international Red List of Threatened Species, according to Topchyi, the zoo’s director. But their evacuation via the bridge over the Buh River to territory held by Ukrainian forces is not possible, he said. “There are not enough vehicles to transport the animals and the only road to Odessa is congested with traffic,” Topchyi said. “And it’s still very cold. If you take the giraffes, the elephants and the hippos…there is a risk that they won’t survive,” he added.

Topchyi ruled out animal abandonment and praised the “heroic” work of around 100 staff members who continue to care for their charges, even sleeping in the zoo to reduce the number of dangerous trips across the city. This is the case of the zoologist Diakonov and his wife, a veterinarian.

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“To come from where I live, I have to cross a bridge that rises and falls at random times, so there’s no certainty that I can make it work,” he said. “That’s why my wife and I have decided to tell each other at the zoo for a while, when the situation is so unstable,” he added.

Overall, the animals at the zoo “lead a quiet life,” said Olga, a keeper, as she watched a female hippo, Rikky, sniff around as she swam lazily around her pool. “Our animals are eating and breeding, they are doing well,” Topchyi said. On March 8, despite intense shelling, a female leopard gave birth. “It’s spring, the births are about to start,” he said. Even though it is closed to visitors, the public continued to buy tickets, with people posting their support for the zoo on Facebook.

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