”I got the money for the zoo by crying.” In the spring of 2022, Ukrainians saved the zoo in Mykolaiv by buying online tickets. Now the animals need help again, says its director Volodymyr Topchiy

Ghanna Mamonova
Yuliana Skibitska, Kateryna Kobernyk
”I got the money for the zoo by crying.” In the spring of 2022, Ukrainians saved the zoo in Mykolaiv by buying online tickets. Now the animals need help again, says its director Volodymyr Topchiy

The director of the zoo is Volodymyr Topchyi.

Mykhailo Melnychenko / «Babel'»

Mykolaiv Zoo is 122 years old this year. It has the largest collection of wild animals in Ukraine, elephants, giraffes, polar bears, lions, hippos, camels and many birds — 4 thousand in total. For the second year, they all live under shelling, sometimes without electricity and drinking water. During blackouts, oxygen was supplied to aquariums with fish thanks to a generator that was started from a tractor. For half a year in 2022, employees lived in a zoo. Fragments of rockets fell on the enclosures, there was not enough dry feed, meat and vegetables, but during the great war not a single animal died from hunger and cold. Babel correspondent Hanna Mamonova asked the director of the zoo, Volodymyr Topchyo, how it was possible. He jokes that in the first month of the great war , he "cryed for help" — he burst into tears during one of the video interviews, and this video motivated people to save the zoo. But it will not be possible to repeat it — Topchii has not cried for a long time and thinks how the zoo will survive another wartime winter.

Topchii has been working at the Mykolaiv Zoo for 45 years, 20 of them as director. He is a part-time member of the city council. Just during the conversation, Topchiy is participating in another meeting. It takes place online, deputies discuss the agenda. Topchii has turned off the microphone and cameras, but is sometimes distracted by voting. He is waiting for consideration of the main issue — water in Mykolaiv. He explains that in 2022, equipment for cleaning species was installed in schools and kindergartens, but now it is unclear who should maintain it: change filters and monitor water quality.

How about water in the zoo?

When the Russians blew up a water intake in the Dnipro in May 2022, we lived without water for two months. Not only the zoo, but the whole city. People ran with eggplants. Then I realized that I needed to make a well. First, one was drilled to a depth of 65 meters, then the second. Now we do not take water in the city, because it is salty in the waterworks.

Mykolaiv Zoo Museum.

Mykolaiv Zoo Museum.

Mykhailo Melnychenko / «Babel'»

Canʼt you give it to animals?

In no case. When water was taken from the Liman in 2022, it was salty. You sit in the bath, and it smells like shrimp. Now we take water from our wells. Pumps and two industrial reverse osmosis systems were delivered. We service the equipment at our own expense.

Does the city give money to the zoo or are you going to donate?

The city is helping us this year, but it only covers salaries and partly food. We have to provide the rest ourselves. Therefore, we are saving, preparing for winter, but still not enough for everything. I do not want to say how much money is needed, but it is about several tens of millions. A zoo is an expensive toy.

In September 2022, we started accepting visitors again, but you wonʼt make money selling tickets like it was before the invasion. 250,000 people left the city, and we cannot hold so many events at the zoo, so that people constantly come to us.

None of the zoo employees resigned after February 24. That day, everyone came to work and stayed here for half a year. In order to be around the animals around the clock, besides, there was no public transport in the city.

Polar bear.

Did the townspeople help you survive in 2022, when the Russians were almost near Mykolaiv?

From the first days and constantly. When in April 2021, the Russians began to gather for the so-called training under our borders, I understood that something was going to happen. So, you need to stock up on feed. From October 2021, we started making preparations — we filled the warehouses with cereals, dried fruits, hay, juices, and hung frozen carcasses. And this helped us survive in the first months of the war.

In March 2022, [I] appealed to the city: "People, help." The townspeople responded. They went to the shops and bought us apples and cereals — they brought us a kilogram or two. Volunteers brought fodder. And so people fed us for four months. The first floor of the administrative building was littered with products from people. If it were not for this, the animals would starve.

We ran out of money almost immediately — I again turned to people: "Help financially. Buy online tickets to the zoo. And people began to buy them all over the world — in Switzerland, Australia, Japan.

Do you remember how many donations were collected on online tickets?

We raised $2.5 million. I donʼt know how many of them are for online ticket sales, because we were also helped by colleagues from zoos in Europe. They raised €1.7 million. It was money not only for the zoo in Mykolaiv, but for everyone in Ukraine. From this amount, in the spring of 2022, we paid 15 million hryvnias in taxes to the city and the state. When the tax official saw this, she said: "You are out of your mind. Where does the money come from?" I say: "We collected and we have to pay." This was our help to the city, because Mykolaiv was without money.

Aviary with elephants.

Mykhailo Melnychenko / «Babel'»

For the whole of 2022, we lived off the money we collected from online tickets. I cried these funds. It was the middle of March [2022]. The orcs were 10 kilometers from the zoo. I came home to change clothes and wash myself, drank a little cognac, and here is a call from a journalist. We talked for a long time, I told how we live, what is happening. At the end, I say: "Thank you to our guys who protect us, shed blood for us." And then, as he burst into tears, he couldnʼt stand it.

The journalist recorded it all on video and posted it on the Internet. And I didnʼt know that. When I get up in the morning, my wife Tatiana says: "Go and see whatʼs going on." And there are 700 thousand views under the video. So people started buying tickets online.

Recently, Mykolaiv is not so often shelled, but before — almost every day. How did the animals react to the explosions?

Quietly. Over the past year, parts of eight rockets have fallen in the zoo. These were not charges, but the tails of missiles, so there was a hum, but no explosions. Once I was walking past the elephants, and at that moment part of the rocket fell. It was ten meters from the enclosure, there was such a sound that I sat down. I got scared. I look, and the elephants are calmly walking, chewing something. They didnʼt listen.

In 2022, parts of eight rockets fell into the zoo. Now they are part of the park.

Mykhailo Melnychenko / «Babel'»

Why so?

I do not know. I did not see any panic reaction in the animals. They hear and see everything, but do not react to explosions. Our animals give birth, eat well, drink and poop — the war did not affect their well-being.

When there was a blackout, a huge 80 kilowatt diesel generator was sent to us from Iceland. The city also gave us several diesel generators. We had a tractor, in the first days without electricity we started a generator from it. They saved fish in aquariums, because without oxygen they would suffocate.

Now we have a new problem — rotten water in the ponds. Previously, we filled them with water from the central water supply, which has its own microflora. When they filled it with water from their own wells, they did not think that it was completely different water — without chlorine. Therefore, now it is necessary to pump out everything and think about what to do so that this does not happen. We have a large collection of birds, they cannot do without ponds.

There is a lot of talk about the evacuation of museums, which did not take place after February 24, but not about zoos. Have you thought about evacuating animals in 2022?

Volunteers and activists ask me why we didnʼt evacuate the animals. But they do not understand what it means to evacuate animals from the zoo. These are not domestic rabbits, cats or dogs. We have giraffes, hippos, lemurs, a large collection of birds. In March last year, it was physically impossible to take them out. This requires a huge number of cages and transport. We didnʼt have all this and donʼt have it now. We have two giraffes — Nuru and Logan. There are no cages for them, and they are six meters high. To take them out, a route must be drawn up — they will not pass under any Ukrainian transport bridge. And at that time, there was only one road working — to Odessa, and it was stuck in traffic jams.

Giraffe Nuru.

Ganna Mamonova / "Babel"

When people left, they came and asked to shelter their animals. We accepted 500 heads. They took everyone, except cats and dogs, because we donʼt have cages for them. And so someone brought rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, parrots, turtles, chameleons, there is one nightingale. A child comes to the zoo and cries: "Take a hamster or a rabbit. Iʼll come back, Iʼll take it." How can you refuse her?

And take away?

Yes, some of the parrots have already been taken away. And there was a case when the military brought two ponies from the village of Posad-Pokrovsky, which was a war zone. First, they called me and asked if we would accept. I said: "And how else — of course, take it." When I saw these ponies, my heart stopped. Itchy, thin. They were there without food, under fire. Nothing remained of Posad-Pokrovsky during the fighting. We have sniffed the ponies, and it seems one of them is pregnant. And they threw a Nile crocodile at us. First, someone called me and asked if I could bring it. I said that we have no place to put him. But he was brought to the door of the zoo, the workers took him away.

Does war prevent animals from giving birth?

On the 7th of March last year, in pure hell, a Far Eastern leopard was born. It is listed in the International Red Book. In 2022, only four kittens of these leopards were born in the world, one of them is ours. Imagine how rare this is.

You cannot say to animals: "War — do not give birth." We gave birth to monkeys, lemurs, servals, a lot of young birds. But we have now stopped the reproduction of some animals — there is nowhere for the young to go. Previously, they were sent to Ukrainian or foreign zoos under the international exchange program, but now this is impossible. We promised to give the Far Eastern leopard first to France, then to Germany, and now he has to go to Denmark. And we still canʼt plan how to take him out safely.

An aviary with monkeys.

Mykhailo Melnychenko / «Babel'»

We receive animals under the same European exchange programs. It is forbidden to sell — developed countries see the sale of animals as human trafficking. In 2019, the Czech zoo gave us two giraffes, males Logan and Nura. They are Rothschild breeds, there are only 700 of them left in the wild. This year we celebrated the ninth birthday of giraffes. They grew up with us.

These are the first giraffes in the zoo, so Europe provided two males for us to learn how to keep them. After the war, we want to get a female. It is not easy to keep males — they fight with each other, although they live in different enclosures. If you plant a female near them, they kill each other. All males, if there is a female nearby, fight.

Do you keep in touch with occupied zoos?

We lost contact with Askania-Nova, the occupiers installed their leadership there. We maintain contact with the zoo in Berdyansk and on Arabatskaya Strelka. During the occupation, I did not hear that animals died in them. The biggest difficulty is to feed the zoo. We transferred money to them for food. They could not give much, so the animals have a very limited diet. Directors and employees of zoos are under enormous pressure, we canʼt even communicate by phone.

Aviary with lions.

Mykhailo Melnychenko / «Babel'»

Now the financial assistance from Europe has ended, and the stream of our income from the sale of online tickets has dried up. Therefore, we cannot financially support zoos in the occupied territory.

Does the Mykolaiv Zoo have enough money to keep animals?

We did not spend all of what we collected in 2022. The fat was put aside to survive the winter of 2023-2024. You can buy an online ticket even now, but they donʼt buy it. And I can no longer cry, as I did then. We have all changed, become more stable. We are already planning what we will do in the zoo after the victory: to form a collection and attract more visitors. A zoo is life for each of us. When people ask me what my favorite animal in the zoo is, I say my wife.

Is she not offended?

What you! Tatiana works here with me in the department of predatory animals. She came here 47 years ago, and Iʼm 45, this is where they met and spent their whole lives. The zoo cannot be closed and abandoned.

The director asks everyone to buy an online ticket and support the zoo, which is already preparing for winter.

Mykhailo Melnychenko / «Babel'»

Giraffes in the Mykolaiv Zoo love carrots the most, and elephants love hay. One online ticket will allow them not to starve.