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Tight times in Ukraine means cramped quarters for its zoo animals

The Kiev Zoo was expelled from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria over poor conditions and mistreatment of animals.

By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
Published: December 22, 2009

KIEV, Ukraine — Tatyana Shvets strode through the Kiev Zoo recently as if it were her own backyard, feeding scraps of bread to the bison (“Hello, my dears!”), cooing to the storks (“Oh, you must be cold!”) and lavishing love upon every creature in sight, as she has since she first visited as a child half a century ago.

City officials said they hoped to have it reinstated.

But often enough, her glee turned to dismay.

The camels’ corral was a mess, she insisted. The elephant was scrawny. The hippopotamus seemed depressed. And the monkeys’ cramped accommodations?

“God, what a nightmare,” she said.

Ms. Shvets chased after and berated zoo workers, making mental notes about complaints that she would send to the zoo’s management. There was a lot to write up.

The Kiev Zoo, it seems, has seen better days. Ukraine’s government is in disarray and the political discord has been unrelenting — and, yes, now even the lions and tigers and bears have been drawn in.

The zoo was expelled from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria in 2007 over poor conditions and mistreatment of animals. Advocates and former workers maintained that a giraffe and other animals died from the zoo’s ineptitude, and that money was siphoned from the zoo’s budget through corrupt schemes.

The zoo’s director was dismissed last year by Kiev’s eccentric mayor, Leonid M. Chernovetsky, after failing to find a mate for an elephant — or so Mr. Chernovetsky said. The new director has stirred an uproar among the staff for her supposedly tyrannical ways, and in October, a brawl erupted among workers during a celebration of the zoo’s centennial.

Lately, animal rights advocates, including Ms. Shvets, have contended that the zoo’s distress has been orchestrated by top city officials who want to sell the zoo’s choice urban real estate to developers and move the animals to the suburbs. The advocates call the strategy, “No animal, no problem,” a play on Stalin’s infamous saying, “No person, no problem.”

“This is being done so there are less and less animals, and they can make money from the land,” said Ms. Shvets, 60, a retired government worker. “The authorities in Kiev these days, all they care about is money.”

The troubles are not always immediately obvious. During a walk around the zoo on a Saturday morning, the place seemed more shabby than squalid, as if it once aspired to great-zoo status but had fallen on hard times for lack of money and attention.

Still, advocates said the worst conditions were obscured behind closed doors, and they have circulated photographs that they said revealed how the animals were treated out of sight.

Many of the primates and bears are held in claustrophobic quarters because the public enclosures are run-down, they said. Construction was begun on a primate pavilion at great cost, then abandoned last year. Workers tell visitors that most monkeys are “under quarantine.”

“I really cried when I went inside and saw the conditions for the monkeys,” said Tamara Tarnawska, leader of SOS-Animals Kiev. “It was absolutely horrible. I felt ashamed to be human.” She said the animals were crammed together in cages that were poorly lighted and dirty.

The zoo’s management disputed many of the criticisms, saying that they were voiced by disgruntled former workers or outsiders with no expertise. The zoo’s director, Svetlana Berzina, did acknowledge that the zoo was in bad shape when she took over last year. She said the previous management was incompetent and had begun projects that were expensive, unnecessary and never finished, like the primate pavilion.

Ms. Berzina said she was replacing workers, spearheading renovations, bringing in consultants and establishing a code of ethics.

“We are consistently dealing with all these issues,” she said. “But I think that you can understand that problems that accumulated over decades cannot be resolved in a single year.”

“A significant number of workers at the zoo clearly were not doing their jobs, and many were simply drinking heavily on the job,” she added. Ms. Berzina denied that there were plans to sell the zoo’s land, and she called publicity over the fight at the zoo’s celebration in October overblown, saying that it was provoked by former workers.

City officials said they hoped to improve the zoo enough to have it reinstated to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, but the association said the zoo would have to wait at least until 2012.

While conflicts over the zoo have been widely publicized, some visitors said they did not see what all the fuss was about.

“Compared to other zoos I’ve been to, the animals live pretty well here,” said Aleksei Nazarenko, 22. “There are all these zoos that travel from city to city in Ukraine, and the animals live pretty poorly there. Here, they seem O.K.”

But Yelena Ryabova, 55, said she was worried that the zoo would be relocated.

“They want to put it 40 kilometers away,” she said, referring to the persistent rumors. (Forty kilometers is about 25 miles.) “That is a long way to go.”

When Ms. Shvets overheard people saying that the animals seemed fine, she shook her head. She said that in her many years of coming to the zoo, things had never been so unsettling. During Soviet times, the zoo’s facilities might have been relatively spare, but the care was far better, she said.

Now, she noted, signs were out of date, animals were mysteriously missing and the zoo was pocked with deserted renovation sites.

And then she stalked off to do some more snooping.

“Where is the hippopotamus?” she demanded of a worker, standing at the edge of an empty outdoor enclosure.

“When the mayor gives us money for repairs, you can see the hippopotamus,” the worker grumbled.

Ms. Shvets located the forlorn animal in a small pen elsewhere. “Good morning, my darling!” she said.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/23/world/europe/23kiev.html

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