Kiev — Exotic animals are among the unlikelier victims of a nation in crisis. Though this little-reported fact has been lost as the international media rightly focus on the struggles of Ukraine’s human population, thousands of animals face starvation as the country recovers from revolution and prepares for the possibility of war.
When Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia on February 22, he left behind not only his garish mansion and 343-acre estate, Mezhigor’ye, but also more than 2,000 animals, including rare red ducks, South American white ostriches, Japanese deer, South African eland, a wild-boar–domestic-pig hybrid, and an African mountain goat. Yanukovych had kept some of these animals for show, but he had bred several others to eat.
Yanukovych’s abandoned menagerie isn’t the only one in which the animals are at risk of starvation. At zoos in Nikolaev, Askania Nova, and Simferopol, more than 9,500 animals are at risk of dying of hunger. Ukrainians have donated vegetables or scraps to feed them, but many animals require a specialized diet and have fallen ill.
Leading the effort to save them is an unlikely alliance that includes a South African businessman, several Ukrainian zoologists, and an American environmental and animal-conservation activist. Together, they have launched a nonprofit campaign to raise money for food and emergency medicine for Ukraine’s imperiled animals. But in a country where corruption is rampant, they face significant obstacles.
The story really began when Lionel de Lange, a 48-year-old South African entrepreneur, immigrated to Ukraine in 2006 to be with a woman he’d met online. The relationship didn’t last, but de Lange fell in love with Ukraine, which he now calls home. When the Maidan revolution began, de Lange was reading news accounts on Facebook and happened upon an article about the zoo animals’ plight.
“I called my sister,” de Lange says. “I said, ‘I’m stressed. These animals are ten kilometers away from me, and they’re starving.’ I never started out as an activist, and I wouldn’t consider myself one. I just wanted to get the animals taken care of.”
De Lange’s sister remembered the story of Lawrence Anthony, a South African man who led a daring zoo rescue in Baghdad in 2003 during the Iraq War. Though Anthony died in 2012, his foundation is still in operation. De Lange contacted the organization’s California-based international director, Barbara Wiseman, and she decided to help him come up with a plan to feed the animals. Last month, they founded the Ukrainian chapter of the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization (LAEO), which de Lange now heads.
When the aid effort began last month, “I didn’t know anyone in the zoo community here,” de Lange says. He began to visit the zoos, asking questions, seeing the conditions for himself, and also inquiring about needs.
But Ukraine’s widespread corruption has made it harder to help the animals. Last year, Transparency International reported that Ukraine was the most corrupt nation in Europe, ranking it 144th of 177 countries surveyed worldwide. That places Ukraine alongside Iran and Nigeria.
Sergiy Hryhoryev, a zoologist who repeatedly blew the whistle on dirty dealings at the Kiev Zoo over the past eight years, tells me, “It is difficult to make order in the zoos, because the governmental workers all know about corruption and want to get some percentages as well.” Today, Hryhoryev and his colleague, Bogdon Shvayka – a zoologist who specializes in birds — volunteer without pay, working with LAEO Ukraine to help feed the animals at Mezhigor’ye.
Shvayka says that in Kiev, up to half the zoo’s budget for animal feed actually ended up in the pockets of corrupt officials: Suppliers charge prices double the market rate, then split the profit with the zoo workers who had helped them in the scheme. “It’s very simple,” he says, adding that directors and other higher-ups would also “employ” friends and family, who actually performed no work for the zoo, pocketing the money. Meanwhile, the animals languished hungry and poorly tended.
That same corruption is prevalent in the philanthropic sector. “The red tape alone has been a nightmare,” de Lange says. “I think it’s arduous and time consuming so that government officials have time to try to figure out how to siphon off money.”
To help fight corruption, LAEO Ukraine doesn’t directly supply funding to zoos, but instead offers short-term emergency rations and medicines. At a zoo in Kharkov, de Lange says, his assistant spoke to a director who, claiming the zoo needed help, asked for cash. When LAEO offered supplies instead, the assistant said they didn’t need the help after all.
“She wanted the money, and that’s a problem,” de Lange says. “Because we’re sitting in Ukraine, you often have gangsters and corruption. Now I’ve got to get people to trust me with their money, and that is the most difficult thing at the moment.”
Zoo animals are costly to feed. To provide for the animals at the zoos at Mezhigor’ye, Nikolaev, and Askania Nova, it costs $2,800 a day for the three combined. So de Lange is drawing on his success as a businessman, helping the zoos become self-sustaining so they won’t have to rely on government funding or private charity.
“We’re not tree-huggers,” de Lange says. “We’ll try to fix the problem now, but we also want to help the zoos to put measures in place to earn extra income now. I love animals. We put them in zoos. Now there’s no money to feed them, and it’s our responsibility. If we don’t feed them, they’re going to starve. It’s our responsibility to take care of them.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.