Hard times at Moscow's zoo

Budget: Since Russia's economic collapse in 1998, much of the zoo's funding is gone and construction and repairs remain unfinished.

March 11, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- It's a perfect March day -- for walruses, anyway. The temperature is 25 degrees Fahrenheit, a brisk wind is blowing the falling snow, and the Moscow zoo's walruses are bellowing happily, frolicking in their outdoor tank like 300-pound puppies.

Inside the new waterfowl pavilion, life is not so good. The elegant ibis, regal swans and Mandarin ducks sit quietly, watching as a rat gobbles up the feed in their trough.

The rat is very fat. Another rat, also well-fed, scurries along a tree branch. The birds wait their turn.

"The rats eat first and take the best food," says Ludmilla Vishnevskaya, the zoologist who presides over the pavilion.

The pavilion, a modern building with pleasing curves and spacious exhibit areas, was built two years ago and should be a popular attraction at Moscow's much-visited zoo. But there are no visitors at all. The pavilion has never opened.

The building was almost completed in 1998. Then Russia's economy collapsed, banks ceased operations and zoo construction funds from the city budget dried up. When it turned out that the pavilion's ventilation system wouldn't work properly, there was no money to repair it.

Much of Russia's economy has rebounded from the August 1998 collapse. But institutions like the zoo, which depend on the city government for most of their money, are still feeling the pinch.

Now a metal conduit dangles uselessly out of the waterfowl pavilion ceiling, blocking the entranceway. No one is working on it. No ladders were bought to clean the murals painted on the soaring walls of the exhibit areas, and the pretty marsh scenes are covered with bird droppings.

Floor tiles are already erupting in unused dusty hallways. Ponds are dark and murky. Rats burrow through the thin foundation, eating duck eggs and babies. The wall paint is blistered from the damp, the ceilings pocked with mold.

"They tried to save money and didn't buy the kind of paint required for concrete," says Vishnevskaya, their keeper, who has feathers sticking to her turtleneck and a muddy bird footprint on her knee. "There's no money to complete the building. It's such a waste of so much beauty."

In the summer, visitors can see pelicans, African yellowbills, bare-faced curassow and purple swamp hens from outside cages. But during Moscow's long winter, they are invisible except to their keepers.

Renovated

Until the early 1990s, Moscow lived in a zoological dark age. The animals were kept in small cages. During the Soviet era, little money was spent on them.

The zoo, which opened in 1864, finally attracted a patron in the city's do-it-now mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

Luzhkov allocated funds -- no one will say how much -- to bring the zoo into the modern age. He nearly succeeded. Lions now prowl around an outdoor arena -- not as big or naturalistic as Baltimore's, but far more appealing than before.

The zoo, with 5,000 animals on less than 50 acres in the middle of the city, is clean and attractive. The animals have more room, and so do their visitors -- about 70,000 of them on a busy summer day. But since the financial collapse, the zoo has lived at subsistence level.

Cutting down

This year, the zoo asked the city for a 60 million ruble budget. It expects to receive 34 million rubles -- about $1.2 million.

"They are giving us money, and animals are not hungry," says Natalya I. Istatova, the zoo's spokeswoman, "but it has caused problems. We've had to cut down on the diversity of food.

"That's not a problem for meat-eating animals. They'll get the meat they need. But it's a problem for birds, apes and other animals."

Elephants, she says, eat more than 50 pounds of food a day, including hay, cabbage, carrots, cereals and beets.

"When we have problems buying food, we feed them by hand so nothing will be wasted. We feed them cabbage by hand, so none of it gets stepped on. It's not a problem of them dying, but it's a problem. They won't be happy. They like to feed themselves."

Feeding other animals will become more time-consuming. Zoo keepers will have to spend hours peeling carrots by hand for the monkeys so nothing is wasted.

"You won't waste any carrots," she says, taking a carrot from her shopping bag and slowly, slowly, running a paring knife over it to demonstrate, "but you will waste a lot of time."

Little success

The zoo has tried to be creative about raising money, but with little success. A program asking the public to adopt animals has won only slight support.

"First, this is a country where if a person is rich he is only newly rich," Istatova says. "It's difficult for the newly rich to give up their money easily." Also, there are no tax inducements to make charitable donations, she says.

Somehow, Istatova says, the zoo needs to educate the public so citizens understand that zoo animals belong to everyone, and everyone must share in protecting and caring for them.

Doing all they can

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