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Zoo director defends elephant shooting

Zoo director defends elephant shooting

Posted: August 21, 2002

By Lydia Rebac

Prague zookeeper says he did not have enough time to safely evacuate all animals

When Prague zoo director Petr Fejk realized that he needed help to save his animals from rising floodwaters, he asked the media to publish his mobile phone number, hoping someone would donate the use of a motorboat or a helicopter.

Now people use the number to accuse him of murder.

"They send short text messages calling me a killer," he says. "It's easiest to make as a scapegoat the person who had to decide that animals had to be shot."

Some animal lovers can't forgive Fejk for ordering zookeepers to kill Kadir the elephant, Lentilka the hippopotamus, a lion and a bear.

In addition to the animals that had to be put down, a gorilla drowned in its cage and a second hippopotamus, who vanished, is presumed to have drowned somewhere in the zoo's flooded confines.

Five sea lions that escaped into the Vltava river were later recaptured. One of the sea lions, named Gaston, made it as far as Germany before he was caught in the Labe (Elbe) river.

Fejk said that reporters have not given people the whole story about what occurred at the 71-year-old zoo. He says the Vltava River Basin Control incorrectly projected a maximum 50-year flood level Aug. 12. By the time the city was warned that the flooding would be far more severe, Fejk did not have the 24 hours he needed for an evacuation.

"The people in Austria had two days' warning," before their 100-year flood, he says. "But I am more sad than angry."

Fejk didn't panic when he was first told that a 20-year flood was headed toward Prague. The zoo has an evacuation plan and 4-meter-high (13-foot) flood barriers. As the warning upgraded to a 50-year level and later to a 100-year flood and worse, he evacuated animals in order of how imperiled they were and how easily they could be transported.

By 5 p.m. Aug. 12, Fejk's staff of 170 had moved 500 animals, mostly birds and monkeys. Many were moved to a zoo in Dvur Kralove, 100 kilometers (60 miles) away.

The largest animals, on the highest ground, had last priority. When evacuation became necessary, workers used cranes and slings.

About 7 a.m. Aug. 13, water breached the barriers and began spilling into the zoo. Caretakers had earlier lured three to higher ground, but rescuers couldn't approach Kadir, a 35-year-old, 2-ton (1,800-kilogram) Indian elephant who was naturally aggressive and growing more so as floodwaters rose.

"Anyone who came near him had a 99 percent chance to die," Fejk says. "I need 24 hours to prepare and transport this bull. We had 15."

Members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums meeting in Vienna endorsed Fejk's decision to order the killings, according to Premysl Rabas, director of the Chomutov zoo in north Bohemia.

"`Even if the carnivores were sent to sleep and moved elsewhere they would be dangerous after awakening," he said.

Tomas Gimenez, a veterinary professor at Clemson University in South Carolina who trains animal keepers around the United States for large-animal rescues, agrees that evacuating a creature like Kadir requires at least 24 hours - ideally 48.

"Fifteen hours? That is really pushing it when you are trying to simultaneously rescue all the other affected animals," Gimenez says.

By the time water had climbed to Kadir's ears, "he was losing the strength to survive," Fejk says. Before giving the order to end Kadir's suffering by gunshot, Fejk considered an array of rescue possibilities, including the use of divers. When it became clear that rescue was impossible, his aim was to kill Kadir quickly and from a safe distance.

Fejk also defends the decision to shoot a hippopotamus after water broke the barriers guarding the animal's pen and she began to panic.

"The hippo could escape and be a danger to the public," Fejk says. The lion and the bear, the most difficult to move, also had to be killed.

The gorilla pavilion had an emergency exit tower designed to withstand a 100-year flood. But a 6-year-old gorilla named Pong drowned, Fejk says, because he wouldn't climb to the tower.

Gimenez says the tower was an excellent precaution.

"Planning for 100-year flood is better than most facilities would have had in place," he says. "Unfortunately, it is difficult to train animals to do the right thing in a panic situation."

Considering the severity of flooding, Gimenez is surprised that the zoo saved the 1,000 animals it did, including 100 large mammals. "Most facilities we are familiar with would not have done as well," he says.

Fejk scoffs at criticism about the zoo's location. "Many zoos are near water," he says. "Here we have wonderful natural conditions for all kinds of species."

If the lower garden is rebuilt, Fejk would order the same 4-meter barriers because higher ones are more expensive and unnecessary.

Fejk estimates that the zoo needs 300 million Kc ($9.4 million) to reopen but he doubts that the city will provide much money. He hopes instead for private donations so that the lower garden can reopen next season.

The upper garden should reopen soon, Fejk says. The animals evacuated from the lower garden will remain in the upper part for now. The 1,500 species will have some unfamiliar neighbors - kangaroos may bunk near camels, bison near flamingos - and some will be allowed to roam the 25- to 30-hectare (62- to 74-acre) site without restraint.

"Can you imagine a macaw running around free?" Fejk says. "It should be a very interesting time at the zoo."

Lydia Rebac's e-mail address is lrebac@praguepost.com

ANIMAL losses

  • Dead: An elephant, hippopotamus, gorilla, lion and bear
  • Presumed drowned: 1 hippo
  • Escaped: 5 sea lions, 4 recaptured
  • Size of flooded area: 20 hectares
  • Estimated material damage: 300 million Kc

  • By Lydia Rebac

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