Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#17 - JRL 7213
Knight Ridder Newspapers
June 5, 2003
Report describes Russian zoo as abusive, notes hundreds of animal deaths
By Mark McDonald

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - The St. Petersburg zoo went without heat last winter - one of the coldest in memory in this northern city - and alarming numbers of animals perished.

A closely held report, revealed by a senior official at the zoo, said all the zoo's amphibians died, along with 167 birds and nine mammals.

The report, which called zoo management "incompetent," described the zoo's overall situation as abusive.

Vladimir Gubanov, a former soldier who became the zoo's director last spring despite having no experience managing zoos, declined to be interviewed. Then he left his job and cleaned out his office.

"The death of any animal is difficult, but when they happen in such big numbers and you know one person is directly at fault, that's even more difficult," said Natalia Popova, a zoologist and the curator of collections, who has worked at the zoo for 21 years. "The fact that we had no heat is the fault of the director. It was mismanagement."

Popova said Gubanov had so poisoned the zoo's working atmosphere that many longtime specialists and key staffers had left.

The status report on the zoo was compiled by a visiting committee from the Eurasian Regional Association of Zoos and Aquaria. The study called the zoo "a discredit to zoos as organizations in charge of caring for animals." The authors recommended that the departed specialists and former director Ivan Korneyev be rehired.

The zoo is still officially known as the Leningrad Zoo. The city of Leningrad was renamed St. Petersburg after the Soviet Union collapsed, but the zoo kept its old name as a way to honor the workers who cared for the animals during the 900-day siege of the city during World War II.

Winter in St. Petersburg arrives early and stays late. Popova said this was the first time in her two decades at the zoo that it hadn't had heat.

Even as temperatures dropped below freezing last winter, the zoo's heat didn't come on, not in the winter pens, not even in the offices. Frantic workers did their best to save the animals they could, and a number of the 2,000 animals were transferred to other Russian zoos to ride out the winter.

Many of the birds that died in St. Petersburg - lots of ducks and parrots - simply froze to death. Others died from injuries suffered when they were frightened by the noise from a renovation program at the zoo

Popova said the association's report was authoritative, but tended to exaggerate the zoo's shortcomings. For example, she said, the renovations were cited as overly stressful for the animals. But Popova said the renovation would create better environments, especially for the wolves and wildcats. Those animals pace nervously in bare, cramped cement and iron cages.

"Even so, it wasn't worse than the siege," she said.

Hundreds of thousands of people died during the Siege of Leningrad, military and civilian alike, many from starvation. There was an artillery battery at the city's renowned Peter and Paul Fortress, a prime target for German bombers, and the zoo, which is nearby, also was hit. One of the first bombing raids killed a female elephant and destroyed several of the wooden cages.

Some of the zoo's larger predators had to be shot for fear they would escape into the city. Many of the other species were transferred to Soviet zoos farther east.

Despite massive evacuations, Popova said, a small core of zoo workers stayed in Leningrad to attend to the dwindling population of hippos, bears, antelopes and birds.

The animals were fed fish, hooves and horsemeat. Workers even stuffed vegetables into old rabbit skins to try to fool the carnivores.

"The workers who stayed with the animals were given medals after the war," Popova said. "We kept the name Leningrad to honor them."

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