Long time ago, I mentioned here something about the Belgrade Zoo. The power of Google brought a Belgrader, Sonja, to my blog, who alerted me to the dire conditions in which the Zoo is right now and the existence of her website (made by her and her students) called Zoo SOS whose goal is to force the City government of Belgrade to move the Zoo from its present location to a better place outside town (not having to deal with the Animal Rights terrorists there, they must have placed a link to PETA by mistake – they do not know the distinction between Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. Update: The PETA link has been removed.).
Belgrade Zoo is located on Kalemegdan, the most ancient (from Roman through Turkish times) part of Belgrade. The zoo is small, and most of it is on stone and concrete. You can see some pictures of it here (just keep clicking on “Next” until you see them all).
Belgraders love their zoo. It is one of the favourite spots to spend a weekend. But it is also depressing to see animals crowded in small cages. It is especially painful for those of us who have seen modern zoos, like the one here in Asheboro, where animals are free to roam over many acres of land specifically designed to mimic their natural habitats.
The Belgrade Zoo is better called a ‘menagerie’ than a Zoo. It is an old-style city zoo, where the main goal is entertainment, while conservation and education play small or no role. It is not affiliated with any international zoo associations, so the nasty conditions in which animals live are cannot be addressed in any way by the rest of the world.
From its very inception, 80 years ago, there was a talk about moving it outside of the stony fortress and onto a bigger, nicer piece of land. Of course, that would make it less accessible to the citizens and tourists, thus probably reducing the revenue. So there has always been a tension between the people who did and people who did not want to see the Zoo moved.
After decades of neglect, Belgrade Zoo got a new Director in the mid-eighties: Vuk Bojovic. The relationship between the citizens of Belgrade and Vuk is quite schizophrenic – some love him, some hate him, but most have a strange love-hate relationship with him.
He is, in person, actually quite a pleasant fellow. But working for him is horror.
He loves animals and has a nice ‘touch’ with them. On the other hand he does not know anything about animals and is not prepared to listen to the experts.
He loves the attention he gets, but that also brings attention to the Zoo, so nobody is really sure how much of his posing is self-love and how much is a Zoo-promoting stunt.
He built a legend around himself as the only person who could pack medication into the tooth of the elephant Boy (who died a couple of years later, just to be replaced by an unwanted, man-killing female ditched by a Dutch zoo). Unlike his predecessors, elephants Tasa and Mita who were sweethearts (I remember feeding them peanuts by hand when I was a kid), Boy had a nasty temper, so the regular elephant feeders gladly let Vuk take the job and the spotlight – just one less dangerous elephant duty to do every day.
Vuk also brought in the first, one and only chimpanzee that the Zoo ever had – Sammy. Sammy was a smart guy so he made it a routine to escape from his cage and go galivanting around Belgrade. On one hand, that demonstrated that the Zoo is incapable of housing a chimp. On the other hand, he became a media darling – showing up on TV every time he escaped. Again, Vuk built a legend around himself as the only person who could approach, catch and recapture Sammy. So, TV crews often had great fun filming 40-something bearded Vuk climbing a tall poplar trying to lure Sammy down.
All those stunts brought interest of Belgraders back to the zoo after many decades. People started coming in. Money started flowing in. And the money was used to make the Zoo pretty – for people. Nothing was done to make the life of animals much better.
Now, that marketing strategy – painting the buildings, opening a new restaurant, offering pony rides for kids, etc. – may have been OK if it lasted the first year or so until enough money is collected to actually start using it for the benefits of animals. But, after 20 years, it does not sound so smart any more.
Then, the 90s came and the wars and sanctions ruined the economy of the country – not to mention the psyche of the people living there, painted as pariahs by the world, painted as villains in the movies, and not given any help to actually get rid of Milosevic (not to mention to retain Kosovo, and get rid of the Al Qaida HQ located there – aiding the KLA terrorists)…
There was no money to feed people, so who had the money to feed the animals? And as the war spread throughout the country, many small zoos had to be evacuated and all the animals brought to the Belgrade Zoo. Already lacking space and resources, the Zoo had to accept dozens of wolves, bears, wild boars, deer, etc. They all had to end up in tiny little cages because there was just no space for them. Yet, although hungry themselves, Belgraders donated meat to the Zoo to feed the animals.
In the 1999, when Belgrade was bombed, electricity would run out and all the meat would get spoiled in the freezers – good only for vultures and hyenas. Water was fouled. There was not enough water to keep the pools for hippos, polar bears, sea lions and penguins full. Eggs of rare birds rotted in the incubators. Daily bombing turned even the calmest animals into psychos – one tiger started chewing his own front toes!
During all that time, Vuk started doing some shady business, including smuggling of exotic animals (he almost smuggled in another elephant!). And now – he is the most vocal opponent of the move to the periphery of the city.
The initial idea was to relocate the Zoo to the Veliko Ratno Ostrvo, a large sandy island in the middle of the Danube at the spot where river Sava flows into it – that is: smack in the middle of Belgrade, but away from any regular streets (they would have built a bridge for the Zoo – right now the only way to get there is by boat).
Right now, the new proposed location is in Surcin, between Sava and the airport. It is not as big as Asheboro Zoo – not even close – but it is much bigger land than what the Zoo has now and it is not all stone and concrete! It would definitely be an improvement and, being built from scratch, it would be built in the most modern way possible, keeping the welfare of animals first and foremost as the goal of the entire operation.
As the Zoo is not part of any international association, and Serbia is now not a signator of any international agreements on regulation of animal keep and trade, and as the Zoo Director himself is the most vocal opponent of the move, the only people who can do something about it are the members of Belgrade city government and the mayor. And those people need LOTS of pressure to move on any matter, not just the Zoo. Most of that pressure has to come from locals, but we can help, by signing this petition, by writing about it and spreading the word. So, do it.