Flora, Fauna, & Municipal Failure: The History behind Tbilisi Zoo

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Angela Wheeler traces the history of Tbilisi Zoo, from Soviet cultural attraction to the focus of the recent flooding disaster, and looks at why it has been allowed to operate in its present location for so long.

Angela Wheeler traces the history of Tbilisi Zoo, from Soviet cultural attraction to the focus of the recent flooding disaster, and looks at why it has been allowed to operate in its present location for so long.

Tbilisi Zoo circa 1930. Image: intermedia.ge
Tbilisi Zoo circa 1930. Image: intermedia.ge

On 14 June 2015, the world awoke to surreal images of escaped zoo animals roaming the flooded streets of Georgia’s capital city: a bear scaling an apartment, crocodiles beneath a freeway overpass, and the now-famous Begi the hippopotamus having a leisurely snack outside a luxury watch outlet.

In the aftermath, explanations differ as to what caused such devastation. A grieving public blamed City Hall for irresponsible urban planning and an inadequate response to a natural disaster. City officials, in turn, found a convenient scapegoat in the previous administration, which had littered the floodplain with pet infrastructure projects. Not be outdone, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church claimed God flooded the zoo in punishment for Soviet sins.

The wrath of God and Mother Nature aside, many simply wondered: why had Tbilisi Zoo been allowed to operate within a river basin, immediately adjacent to a major traffic circle—for so long? The answers lay in the zoo’s origins and the consequences of an essentially Soviet institution chafing against a post-Soviet urban landscape.

Members of zoo staff in the 1930s. Image: National Parliamentary Library of Georgia (NPLG).
Members of zoo staff in the 1930s. Image: National Parliamentary Library of Georgia (NPLG).

Established in 1927, Tbilisi Zoo evolved from a local scientific institution known as the Caucasus Society for Animal Acclimatization. The municipal committee designated a site on what was, at the time, the largely undeveloped outskirts of the city. The location was easily accessible via the imperial-era Georgian Military Highway, while still providing an appropriately bucolic setting for both visitors and animals.

Specialists from Moscow and Tbilisi collaborated on the design of the zoo, including P. Manteifeli (lead researcher at Moscow Zoo), architect V. Stefanov (architect of Leningrad Zoo expansions), and A. Janashvili (prominent local zoologist). Construction began in summer 1928, chronicled by local photographer Evtikhi Zhvania. The zoo initially housed four exhibits: Caucasian fauna, fauna of the Soviet Union, agricultural animals, and exotic species.

Entrance to Tbilisi Zoo on Heroes' Square, circa 1950. Image: NPLG.
Entrance to Tbilisi Zoo on Heroes’ Square, circa 1950. Image: NPLG.

Gabriel Hanson, a civil engineer and the zoo’s first formal director, was a tireless advocate for expansion, adding both research labs and family attractions between 1934-1944. In 1938, he secured Tbilisi’s first elephant, a calf named Malka, from Moscow Zoo to great fanfare. Through the 1970s, new arrivals were a source of such excitement that they were often featured on posters across the city. In 1939, a new circus was built across the square, creating a convenient weekend destination for families.

By the 1950s, the zoo was a major component of Tbilisi’s urban leisure culture and, more broadly, part of nationalized leisure in the Soviet Union. The Party was deeply concerned with the recreational activities of homo sovieticus, and sought to engineer spaces that would encourage “proper” use of free time. State-sponsored zoos, circuses, and summer camps were the youth equivalent of cultural institutions for Soviet workers: palaces of culture, theatres, and sanatoria. According to government rhetoric, these wholesome recreational spaces were supposed to aid in the “cultural leisure” of Soviet workers and youths – as opposed to “cultureless leisure,” such as drinking, gambling, and hooliganism.

A visit to Tbilisi Zoo in 1959. Image: NPLG.
A visit to Tbilisi Zoo in 1959. Image: NPLG.

The zoo’s heyday coincided with the comparatively prosperous 1960s and 1970s, with over one thousand animals and half a million visitors annually. New apartment blocks and shops surrounded the zoo as the city expanded outwards, and commuters in cars began to displace residents on foot in the adjacent Heroes’ Square. The River Vere overflowed in 1960 and 1963, sparking early discussions about potential relocation or redesign of the zoo. The most devastating flood came in 1972, reportedly drowning every animal save for an elephant. Accounts of the flood do not mention human casualties, nor do they mention how the zoo was restocked and reconstructed in its original location.

The 1980s saw the beginning of a steady decline as political and economic instability drew funding away from cultural institutions. Regional political conflict came to a head in 1991, with Georgia’s independence from the USSR. A violent military coup later that year led to open warfare in downtown Tbilisi and critical food shortages. The economy suffered as the wildly unstable Georgian “coupon,” then the weakest of the post-Soviet currencies, replaced the Soviet ruble. During the anarchy of 1991-1993, the World Society for the protection of Animals reported that more than half of the zoo’s animals perished from cold and starvation. Deputy mayor Shalva Ogbaidze set up an emergency fund to rescue the surviving animals. For much of the 1990s, however, the zoo continued to operate on a shoestring budget of a few thousand USD per year.

Escaped elephant, celebrity of the 1972 Tbilisi Zoo flood. Image: Tiflis Hamqari.
Escaped elephant, celebrity of the 1972 Tbilisi Zoo flood. Image: Tiflis Hamqari.

As independent Georgia stabilized in the early 2000s, a combination of international and government funding subsidized much-needed improvements. Soon after, however, the zoo faced a new threat: the 2006 expansion of Heroes Square traffic circle into a system of overlapping highways—a bowl of asphalt spaghetti intended to relieve downtown Tbilisi’s congestion. Completed in 2012, the project effectively relegated the zoo to a dingy kennel hidden beneath deafening overpasses, marring what were already mediocre conditions for animals and visitors alike.

Throughout the 2000s, Tbilisi Zoo administrators urged City Hall to relocate the zoo to a protected area by Tbilisi Sea, an inland lake on the outskirts of town. In 2012, the London office of Australasian architecture giant Hassell Studios won the international competition to design an ambitious zoo and recreation complex, but a change in political administration later that year put plans on hold.

Begi the hippopotamus. Image: Associated Press.
Begi the hippopotamus. Image: Associated Press.

On 13 June 2015, Tbilisi Zoo became inundated overnight when heavy rains triggered a landslide that blocked drainage tunnels for the swollen river. Unfortunately, a combination of factors (animals lacking microchips, tranquilizers inaccessible in time) meant that the few animals managing to escape were more likely to be shot than captured. Three zookeepers also died attempting to rescue the remaining panicked animals. Among them was the heroic Guliko Chitadze, a longtime employee who joined in the recovery efforts despite a recent tiger mauling that left her with an amputated arm.

Amidst subsequent finger-pointing, talk of relocating the zoo to Tbilisi Sea has resurfaced at City Hall. The suffering and death of so many animals has ignited public debate about the role of zoos in Georgia. Is the primary function of Tbilisi Zoo to provide Georgians with “cultural leisure”? Or should a 21st century institution prioritize animal conservation and welfare? How will the design of a new zoo reflect potential shifts in purpose? With informed public support and funding (all eyes are on Bidzina Ivanishvili, local billionaire, political dilettante, and private zoo owner), hopefully the Tbilisi Zoo will once again have a safe and welcoming home.

To support families and zoo animals displaced by the flood, the Tbilisi Hippo Fund is currently accepting donations in exchange for t-shirts printed with star zoo escapee Begi the hippo. 

2 Comments
  1. Sevket Akyildiz 5 years ago
    Reply

    Thanks Angela, this is was a very readable article about Soviet culture and place, and post-Soviet change–and the unsuitable position of the zoo due to the risk of flooding. I found it interesting that “exotic” animals, such as an Indian elephant, were housed at the zoo, and viewed, gazed upon as something (very) “different” — perhaps to educate the masses and create a modern pleasure park in the city for resting workers — while some Westerners and others, might look upon aspects of Georgian/Caucasian culture(s) as “exotic”? A case of those who gaze being gazed upon? (Perhaps less so today due to globalization.)

  2. Bill Rodgers 5 years ago
    Reply

    Interesting article, but you mention that the world awoke to the surreal images of”crocodiles beneath a freeway overpass”.

    I’ve seen two separate images which allege to show a crocodile loose on in the flooded area near Heroes square. Both of the images – a widely shared YouTube video of a crocodile swimming in shallow water on the side of the road, and an overhead view of a crocodile in a parking lot – were most likely fake.

    While the Tbilisi zoo disaster was an example of absolutely piss-poor Soviet central planning, the more interesting story might be the media coverage this disaster caused.

    The Georgian news media was overwhelming sensationalistic in their coverage of the flood – and the Tbilisi city government was Soviet-esque with their embrace of secrecy and lack of truthfulness when dealing with the public.

    There’s a huge amount of blame to go around with this fiasco, and the usual “blame Saakashvili first” crowd was silenced as soon as Ilya blamed the Soviets.

    All in all, a real clusterfuck. Please investigate if any of those crocodile images were even real.

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