A blast-stressed elephant and an abandoned lemur: The war within Kyiv’s zoo

Kyiv Zoo Director Kyrylo Trantin comforts Horace, a 17 year-old Asian elephant, at the Kiev Zoo in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 4. (Heidi Levine)
6 min

KYIV, Ukraine — Horace the Asian elephant is so terrified of explosions that he’s been put on sedatives. The zebras are being kept inside after they panicked at the sound of shelling and ran directly into a fence. And Maya the lemur is so overwhelmed that she abandoned her newborn baby this week — nearly killing him.

Zoos have often been collateral damage in war around the world. And war is now touching Kyiv’s zoo, next to a key military installation and possibly in the path of a Russian push into the capital.

Animals are increasingly exhibiting signs of stress. They cower from the air raid sirens and blasts that ring out throughout the day. Gunfire often can be heard at night.

Fearing the worst — and seeking shelter from attacks in their own neighborhoods — around 50 staff members have moved into the sprawling facility to care for the animals around-the-clock, bringing some 30 family members with them.

After stockpiling plenty of food, about 50 employees have stayed behind to care for the animals at Kyiv Zoological Park. (Video: Whitney Shefte, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

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They take cover during air raid sirens in the zoo’s makeshift shelters: one in a bird enclosure and another in an unfinished aquarium. But animals as large as elephants or giraffes cannot be moved below ground.

“They have no space to hide or run,” said the zoo’s director, Kyrylo Trantin, 49. “Once they’re out of the zoo, they have fewer options than any human. It’s going to be the streets with tanks.”

In the eastern city of Kharkiv, the Feldman Ecopark zoo reported that its facilities were damaged in recent fighting.

“Some animals were injured, some were killed,” the zoo wrote on Facebook. “Fighting is still going on in the Feldman Ecopark area, so, unfortunately, the losses are not final yet.”

This is the nightmare the Kyiv Zoo hopes to avoid. A wild animal shelter outside of Kyiv moved some animals abroad to Poland — including lions and tigers. But that’s a process Trantin said would be difficult for his large animals during peacetime, let alone during war.

Instead, he began preparing for the possibility of a Russian invasion about a week before it began. Taking advice from a fellow zoo director in Haifa, Israel, he stocked up on food supplies and materials to rebuild enclosures in case of an attack.

By Feb. 25, “there was fighting near the zoo and bullets were flying over us,” he recalled.

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Already, staff are keeping certain animals inside to protect them from any shelling that could land nearby.

With his enormous ears and sensitive disposition, Horace is particularly vulnerable to loud noises, Trantin said. So a staff member moves into the 17-year-old elephant’s enclosure with him each night, sleeping beside him to comfort him during any loud bangs. When he wakes up in distress, they feed him apples and chat to him until they sense he’s relaxed.

“If a rocket or shell lands, they know how to calm him down,” Trantin said of his colleagues.

On Friday, he stroked Horace’s big gray cheek and dumped a pile of hay on the ground for him to snarf up with his trunk. He eats around 220 pounds of food a day. For now, the zoo has enough supplies in stock for around two weeks and hopes to be able to keep up a steady stream from its suppliers.

But the city’s general population is already preparing for the possibility that key supply routes could be cut off if the city is surrounded.

For the zoo, the biggest concern now is the lack of available green salad. So staff members planted their own garden to feed the animals the freshest lettuce they can.

Already, some staff who live on the other side of the river have been unable to report to work because of road closures. Others have signed up to fight.

Cafes and ice cream stands are closed. Benches decorated with animal shapes are empty. A colorful Ferris wheel sits lonely against the gray sky. A flock of birds flying above scattered when a small drone flew near them — their caws echoing through the haunting quiet.

Ivan Rybchenko, 33, is among the zookeepers who can still reach work by bike. On Friday, he leaned over a balcony enclosure, feeding a banana to Dguto, one of two 17-year-old giraffes living at the zoo. In the background, several booms could be heard and an air raid siren began to wail. Rybchenko and Dguto barely blinked.

Unlike many other men his age, Rybchenko didn’t consider joining local forces to push back the Russians. His own way of standing up to the invasion, he said, is by keeping these animals alive.

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“I’m taking care of giraffes, deer and horses,” he said. “So there’s no way for me to join territorial defense because they would simply die.”

Still, he worries that events outside of his control will lead to a tragedy here. “I’m afraid that any of the animals in the zoo will be killed,” he said.

Tony, a 47-year-old gorilla, paced back and forth in his enclosure, happy to see Trantin and his colleague Valentina Dykoneva, 50, who arrived with treats: dates, bananas and a Coca-Cola bottle filled with tea.

Tony doesn’t seem particularly disturbed by the explosions, Dykoneva said. “But of course he’s missing people and visitors.”

In an office nearby, a boy sat at a computer playing a game. A snake was curled up inside a small tank. And in a small box on a table, a two-day-old baby lemur clung to a soft piece of cloth.

Unlike his sibling born the same day, he failed to quickly latch to his mother after his birth to feed. So she abruptly abandoned him, in a move the zookeepers said was highly unusual and likely linked to stress. To save him, they moved him into their care, where they are now mimicking his mother’s warmth by wrapping him in fuzzy material and feeding him baby formula through a syringe.

Although they blame the conflict for his mother’s abandonment, the birth of the baby lemur offered a source of joy for the zoo employees. They named him Bayraktar — after a Turkish-made drone used by the Ukrainian military.

The name, they joked, shows that — like the drones fighting the Russians — the arrival of this baby lemur amid so much destruction “is a positive thing.”

Whitney Shefte contributed to this report.