We helped in Tbilisi

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  22. 06. 2015

On the before last Sunday, June 14, at 10:30 am I noticed this title in the internet news of Czech Radio: "Flood hit Tbilisi and Zoo, animals running on the streets of the town". The second half of it was later changed to the even more dramatic headline "Carnivores, hippos and crocodiles run wild on the streets". But even the first milder version reminded me of what we were facing two years ago. And it was obviously much worse in Tbilisi.

Cleaning of the penguins. Eight of them survived under a car, another one was captured in the river several hundred metres from the Zoo. Photo Vít Lukáš Cleaning of the penguins. Eight of them survived under a car, another one was captured in the river several hundred metres from the Zoo. Photo Vít Lukáš

During the next few hours we exchanged hundreds of sms´s and held tens of phone calls. When we met in Prague Zoo at 4 pm, it was already clear that the next day we would send a support team led by Petr Velenský to Georgia. And we succeeded. On Monday, June 15, before 7 pm at Prague Airport, we said farewell to five curators and keepers from Prague Zoo, who were joined by one colleague from Zlín Zoo and another from Zoo Ústí nad Labem.

Our 7-member team worked in Tbilisi for five days and information and photos, which I was getting from Petr Velenský and Vítek Lukáš, composed a picture of actual apocalypse. During Saturday night an almost ten-metre-high wave of water, mud and debris swept through part of the Zoo, located in the Vera River Valley. Everything went so quickly that the Zoo director and his wife, who had arrived to control the situation, could not leave. After they left their car, they could not manage to escape the floodwaters and had to climb on the roof of one of the cages. Later they were rescued by boat. Three staff members of the Zoo died and many of its 600 animals - half of all the mammals there - fell victim to the catastrophe.

Step by step I learned from my colleagues how they were becoming involved. For example, out team was helping with cleaning of the penguins, who had survived under a car, although motor oil spilled on them. To remove it first they had to be covered by lukewarm plant oil, then washed in lukewarm water, then thoroughly washed with a sponge soaked in detergent, then again rinsed in water - and all of this had to be repeated once or twice again.

Unfortunately most of the news I was receiving described how our colleagues were wading through waist-deep mud and extricating dead bears, lions, jaguars, monkeys, birds... It was very hard, dirty and depressing work. Many animals died in the deadly torrent, others were shot by soldiers. Their bodies were left buried in the mud and nothing seemed to confirm the news reports about dangerous animals escaping to the town, the news headlines were exaggerated. But three days after the floods, just at the moment when our colleagues were looking for a cadaver of a white tiger in his cage flooded by mud, the same tiger attacked and killed a man in the town. Although the cage remained locked, the tiger, carried by water to the top, managed, with unbelievable strength, to pry open the bars of the cage´s ceiling and squeezed itself through a narrow slit to escape.

Gradually the huge mistakes which the army made became evident. The soldiers did not let the keepers continue their work and started thoughtlessly shooting the animals, even those, which were already immobilized. Later the Zoo management did not receive any information, which no doubt contributed to the ensuing tragedy. The Georgian public is very well aware of it, the people organized a large protest to support the Zoo in front of the Government office.

The help of our team in Tbilisi was very important, both in reality and also in a symbolic way, and it aroused respect and gratitude. When still en route, Petr Velenský sent an sms from Warsaw Airport: "Before boarding the plane a Georgian came to me and said: ‘Prague Zoo? Thank you!´ And he shook my hand even though I said nothing." And this situation occurred again and again in many different ways. We can be proud of the work of our team, led by Petr Velenský - and speaking about Prague Zoo, I am happy that we are able to provide help, and not only accept it.

Miroslav Bobek, Director, Prague Zoo

We helped in Tbilisi

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