MOSCOW — The giraffes at the Moscow Zoo like to eat apples from Poland. But they probably never meant their preference to be a political statement.
The more than 6,000 animals in Russia’s largest zoo have been caught up in the worst fight between Russia and the West since the Cold War. A wide-ranging ban on Western food announced this week by the Kremlin has forced a sudden diet change for creatures that eat newly forbidden fruit.
The sanctions against meat, fish, fruits and vegetables from the United States, the European Union and other Western countries were intended to strike a counterblow to nations that have hit Russia over its role in Ukraine’s roiling insurgency. But the measures will also have an impact on stomachs at the zoo.
The sea lions crack open Norwegian shellfish. The cranes peck at Latvian herring. The orangutans snack on Dutch bell peppers. Now the venerable Moscow Zoo needs to find politically acceptable substitutes to satisfy finicky animal palates.
“They don’t like Russian food,” zoo spokeswoman Anna Kachurovskaya said. “They’re extremely attached to what they like, so it’s a hard question for us.
“We are not talking about Brie. We’re just talking about ordinary food.”
None of the animals eat such a specialized diet that they will starve, she said, and the zoo has endured tough times before.
Founded in 1864 during the reign of the modernizing Czar Alexander II, the zoo survived several revolutions, the ravages of a world war and the 1991 collapse of Soviet communism. When troops loyal to President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 shelled Russia’s White House, half a mile away, the noise made the animals panic, according to contemporaneous news accounts.
At the time, food shortages in grim post-Soviet Russia meant that the animals had barely enough to fill their bellies, let alone a choice of Western-sourced fruits and vegetables. Those days are long gone, and the manicured lawns and modernized exhibition halls drew a wide range of Russian families Friday .
Two elephants jostled each other as they scooped up Russian-grown hay from an attendant. A giraffe poked its head out of an elegant, peach-colored and colonnaded building that dated to the czarist era. Visitors snapped smartphone photos and gawked at an orangutan mother pulling her child up onto a rope set, as the universal stench of primate houses perfumed the air.
Among Russian humans, the new one-year food ban — imposed in reaction to the Western sanctions that target Russian energy, defense and financial sectors — has been met with widespread praise. “Like they say, we’re kicking back,” said Roman Kersonov, 25, a fire alarm technician.
As he strolled out of a central Moscow grocery store, he was drinking kvass, a soft drink derived from fermented bread. “I’m not worried. We’ve been through worse times.”
But the shopping carts full of Baltic herring that zookeepers were pushing through the bird exhibits Friday will soon be emptier. And the changes will drive up food prices for the cash-strapped zoo, Kachurovskaya said.
“Inside the zoo, we’re discussing a lot of questions. We’re discussing from what countries we can find all this food, and how much it will cost,” she said.
Substitutions may be logistically difficult, and food costs will rise at a time when budgets are already strapped.
The sea lions’ shellfish will have to come all the way from Iceland. Russia can provide the apples, but because of inefficient supply chains, Russian apples are more expensive than the Polish equivalent. Egypt and Turkey can send over many of the vegetables.
The penguins eat fish from Argentina — whose food sales to Russia have not been blocked and are politically in the clear.
Orangutans, gorillas and monkeys are particularly finicky eaters at the zoo, but Kachurovskaya said they would eventually adapt.
“In the wild, they eat what they have, not what they want,” she said.
Even as the zoo animals on Friday ate the dwindling supplies of their imported food, Russian officials met to discuss weightier affairs of state.
President Vladimir Putin met with his security council to discuss Russia’s economic security, and the situation in Ukraine, the Kremlin said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin met Friday with E.U. Ambassador to Russia Vygaudas Usackas to discuss the tit-for-tat sanctions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
“No one is scared” of the E.U. sanctions, the ministry said in a statement. “This is not our choice, but we will not leave an escalation of sanctions unanswered.”
Other Russian leaders said Friday that the food bans were a much-needed impetus for Russia to bolster its own agricultural industry.
“The measures that we are taking now are related to enhancing national security,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. “Let it be food security or industrial security.”
Russia’s best traits are demonstrated “during ordeal,” he said.