Outrage floods Prague zoo


PRAGUE, Czech Republic - When floodwaters recede they usually leave behind a changed landscape, both physically and emotionally.

The record-setting wall of water that swept through the western half of the Czech Republic last month knocked out roads, bridges, rail lines and the capital's metro system; it also left thousands homeless and killed 19 people.

But it was the carnage at the city's zoo that outraged some people the most. An elephant was shot because there was no cage in which to move it. A mother hippopotamus was shot when rising waters enabled her to swim out of the enclosure - making her a threat to people and animals. Her baby died when floodwaters immersed the pavilion where it sought refuge.

A lion was shot and a gorilla drowned. More than 80 birds drowned as well.

"No one can give back these animals' lives," says Marta Kubisova, a former dissident and singer, and one of the country's strongest defenders of animal rights. "Once we take these animals into our care, we have a higher responsibility."

In the days after the Vltava River crested at 26 feet above normal level, public anger was loud and harsh. Critics said the zoo's failure to protect all of the animals was inexcusable. The zoo's director, Petr Fejk, was the primary target of the public's anger, receiving a barrage of death threats and messages calling him a cold-blooded murderer.

Incensed, he went to the news media and likened the threats to rubbing salt in an open wound - saying he is more heartbroken than anyone by the animals' deaths.

Kubisova was also bombarded with angry phone calls and letters from people wanting to vent their anger against the zoo. She has little sympathy for Fejk (pronounced FAKE) and other top officials.

"They're offended by my opinions, but I won't apologize," Kubisova says. "They were too late and did not do enough.

"They keep talking about some zoo in Poland where everything was lost, but that's not a valid argument for me. I won't congratulate them and give them medals because of what happened in Poland."

Fejk, who has directed the Prague Zoo for six years, is surprised and furious at the hostility toward him and other officials.

"For everyone at the zoo," he says, "it is an absolute tragedy to shoot an animal."

The outrage over animal welfare is unusual for a country still working to overcome its communist past. Usually, political and economic problems loom larger than issues of equal rights, minority rights and animal rights.

Until a few years ago it was commonplace to see women here wearing coats with fur-lined collars, often with the animals' feet dangling along.

"Ten years ago, the situation was quite hopeless," Kubisova says. "Animals are no longer just 'things' in this country, but sentient beings."

Yet more public anger was aroused over the plight of Gaston, a male sea lion. The entire nation was gripped by its five-day odyssey as floodwaters carried him north to the Elbe River and another 100 miles or so into Germany. When German rescuers finally corralled him, Gaston was exhausted and hungry.

But instead of allowing him to recover in a German zoo, Czech officials chose to bring Gaston back to Prague immediately. He died on the trip home.

The official cause of death was exhaustion and an infection. Fejk, a former high school teacher with a doctorate in philosophy, says he regrets Gaston's death but defends the decision. "Gaston was tired and stressed, but we decided it would be best to get him home with his friends," he says.

He resents the second-guessing. "Maybe we transport Gaston to a zoo in Germany," Fejk says, "and he dies there."

If that had happened, he adds, he would have been criticized for not bringing the sea lion back to Prague.

He and the animal rights activists agree on one thing: The drowning of a 6-year-old gorilla was especially lamentable because it was easily avoidable.

A new $1 million gorilla enclosure opened last year, near the river. In case of a flood, the gorillas were to climb a tower, within their enclosure, to safety.

They did so, but after the floodwaters receded, a gorilla named Pong died for reasons that are unclear.

"Believing in the tower was wrong," Fejk says. "I feel bad that I relied on the tower for the gorillas, because without the tower the gorillas would be the first animals to be evacuated."

Beyond the plight of individual animals, a broader debate has emerged over the morality and viability of maintaining zoos.

After almost four weeks of being closed, the zoo has partially reopened. Many surviving animals are doubling up. Otters and penguins are sharing space. Each used to have outdoor and indoor pools for swimming, but now the otters are kept inside and the penguins left outside.

The floods destroyed the lower half of the zoo, which is built on a mountainside. Fejk puts the damage at $5 million and says it could take four years to complete the repairs. His highest priorities now are to rebuild housing for about two dozen workers and restore electricity and water supplies before winter.

He says changes will be made to better ensure safe evacuations in the future. But Fejk rejects the notion that zoos should be closed down altogether. In a country of 10.2 million people, the country's 15 zoos drew 4 million visitors last year, he says.

"Talk of closing the zoos is wrong," Fejk says. "I'm prepared to think about quicker evacuations, about moving some complicated [large] animals, but not to close all zoos because one time in 100 years comes a big water - it is not correct."

He says the zoos are educational and they breed endangered species that are disappearing in the wild because of diminishing habitats.

This argument, too, has its critics.

Otakar Strba, a zoologist at the University of Olomouc, responds with an expletive when told of Fejk's comments. "If some animals are endangered, it is either because of human interference or nature," he says. "The only way to save them is to preserve their habitat."

And he points to the African elephant as a prime example. Once an endangered species, the elephants have thrived in tightly controlled nature preserves that protect them from poachers and hunters, he says.

"To raise some animals in a zoo and then put them into the wild, the success is close to zero," Strba says. "I don't know of any animals zoos have saved in this way."

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