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Chicago Tribune
December 19, 2001
Storied zoo sees a wolf at the door
Russia's oldest rumored to be a developers' target
By Colin McMahon
Tribune foreign correspondent

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The St. Petersburg zoo has survived the Bolshevik Revolution, the Nazi blockade and, on pluck and a budget of peanuts, a decade of post-Soviet economic tumult.

Now the zoo faces a new threat. Commercial interests and their political allies in Russia's second city want to close the zoo and develop its prime real estate, according to local media reports.

The issue is whether St. Petersburg should build a new zoo on its outskirts and, if so, what should become of the storied Leningradsky Zoopark in the city center. The larger issue is what St. Petersburg does with its cultural institutions and how the city makes those decisions.

The tale is typical of today's Russia: all murk and intrigue and bombast. The characters include a popular zoo director, the governor's wife, combative city officials and who knows who else twisting arms and greasing palms behind the scenes. Then there are the animals in the zoo.

Even with an entrance fee of only $1, Leningradsky Zoopark struggles to draw a crowd. Russia's culture budget is no match for Soviet times, and the zoo is no match for the Hermitage, the Russian Museum or the other St. Petersburg landmarks fighting for every kopeck that the state hands out. The zoo has only a few corporate sponsors, most of them multinationals. Charitable giving, to put it kindly, is a tradition yet to take hold in post-Soviet Russia.

The result is that at 136 years, Russia's oldest zoo looks its age. Buildings sag in disrepair. Exhibits plead for updating. The place feels cramped to visitors; one can only imagine being the caged tiger prowling a space smaller than an average American dining room.

Director Ivan Korneyev knows the zoo needs help. He would welcome a big, modern zoo outside town, but he does not want any new zoo to replace his.

Lincoln Park Zoo cited

He used Chicago as an example. Lincoln Park Zoo may not make money. It is small compared with the elephantine Brookfield Zoo. But no one tries to get rid of it.

"In principle it is not important to me what they would build here if they closed the zoo," said Korneyev, who survived a recent effort by city officials to have him fired. "What's important is that something else would be here instead of the zoo, which has always been located here, which survived even the blockade. It's an unacceptable change of the city face."

For all the talk floating around St. Petersburg about getting rid of the zoo, however, no one can say for sure who backs such a plan. If anyone.

With impatience bordering on hostility, the chief of the city's cultural committee dismisses as provocation reports in the St. Petersburg media that developers plan to put a casino or a hotel on the zoo's land.

"There are no plans to close the zoo. Period," said Vladimir Shitoryev. "These rumors were started by those with their own special interests."

The Zoogarden Fund, a non-profit group created to aid "the development of the Leningradsky Zoopark," wants it turned into a "zoological education center." Then a mammoth zoo and amusement park could be built on the northwest edge of St. Petersburg.

Korneyev, once a member of the Zoogarden Fund, now distrusts its intentions. He fears that "zoological education center" is a euphemism for stripping the park of all but a shack or two. He, too, hears reports of a new casino or hotel going up on the zoo's land.

Some friends of the zoo blame shadowy business interests. When Korneyev was fighting to keep his job, supporters donned animal masks and protested. Later that day, a demonstrator was abducted, driven outside the city, forcibly shaved of his long hair and instructed to tell his comrades that no more protests would be tolerated.

"There are many people surrounding this who have in mind their personal interests and personal profits," Korneyev said. He would not elaborate.

Korneyev and other experts heap scorn on the Zoogarden Fund's plans for the new park at Dolgoye Lake, particularly the list of animals it wants to collect. Critics cackled at a plan to stock dozens of crocodiles, scores of monkeys and hundreds of bees.

"Some scene," observed the Moscow News. "A bird colony on a manmade cliff populated by seagulls to be specially purchased, even though there are plenty scavenging at Primorsky dumps absolutely free of charge."

Friends of the zoo ineffective

Zoogarden Fund opponents can take solace in its inability to get much done. Though Gov. Vladimir Yakovlev appointed his wife, Irina, to supervise the fund when it was created in 1996, it has failed to rally either investors or donors.

"There is no project yet," said fund President Olga Chesnova. "There is a concept and a business plan. If some sponsors are interested, they are welcome."

Korneyev, who started working at the zoo 23 years ago when he was a 17-year-old cleaning the cages of predators, is making plans of his own. He is raising money from residents to build a new home for elephants, who have been missing from the zoo for nearly 20 years.

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