‘Winnie the Pooh’ has got into trouble: Rescuing the animals in Sochi

‘Winnie the Pooh’ has got into trouble: Rescuing the animals in Sochi

Expert Reports  

In the summer of 2022, photos of emaciated camels appeared on social media. The unfortunate animals losing their hair turned out to be inhabitants of the Safari Park in the mountains of Sochi, in the village of Akhshtyr and not the inhabitants of a hot desert.

The sad story began five years ago, when the “Drive” company took a lease of a 160-ha piece of land in the Adler District of the resort city. The company wanted to create a tourist complex with hotels, guest houses, and the Safari Park was supposed to be the main attraction. That is how camels, lions, tigers, leopards, rare birds and other animals appeared in spacious enclosures in the mountains of Sochi. At varying times, the number of inhabitants of the Safari Park in Akhshtyr reached three hundred animals, about 50 different species of animals were kept there. Only few people could see them as the COVID-19 pandemics had broken out. But it wasn’t quite the end of the troubles that hit the Safari Park. A lawsuit against the “Drive” company was filed by the Prosecutor General’s Office with a demand to leave the land plot that had the status of agricultural land. As a result, the owners’ interest in the project faded away, the animals were sold, given to other people or transferred to crowded quarantine enclosures. When mushroom pickers saw emaciated camels, an inspection started. The representatives of the Inter-district Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, the Internal Affairs Directorate, the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, and the Sochi Veterinary Department found more than 60 animals in the enclosures of the collapsing Safari Park, including large carnivores. Their condition was found to be satisfactory. It turned out that lean, mangy camels suffered from a skin disease called ‘sarcoptic mange’ and they shed hair. No one was punished and everybody forgot about the animals.

But not for long. In early February, frosts came to the mountains of Sochi, and a cry for help sounded: “Animals are dying!”.

“By that time, some of the large animals from the Safari Park had been transferred to zoos or sold to pay the wages to the employees. So, an Amur tiger, three Himalayan bears, four leopards, three lynxes, a Far Eastern wild cat, four porcupines, a coatimundi and a wolf were sent to the Moscow Zoo. They just let the rest ‘animals of no importance’ go. According to the owners of the Safari Park, 25 animals turned out to be the “rest animals of no importance”, including corsac foxes, porcupines, coatimundis, guinea pigs, mongooses, rabbits, raccoons, bears, camels, grunting oxes, and deer. The list also includes rare birds, including the sea eagle that is in the Red Data Book and the imperial eagle,” says Alexander Zobnin, Chairman of the Sochi Geographical Society. Scientists were the first to respond the call for help and stretched a helping hand.

It turned out that at that time, livestock expert Sofiya Ermolenko and two workers were the only people who looked after the animals that were in the Safari Park. For several months, they came high into the mountains every day to feed the animals. At that time, the backdated wages to the girl who took care of the animals reached half a million roubles. Money for feeding the animals were allocated by a certain sponsor who was going to take them to his own zoo. But this was not done. While there was money for food for animals, there was no money to build enclosures or cages. One day, Sophiya came to the Safari Park and saw pools of blood. Some depredators got into the Safari Park and slaughtered a family of minipigs to make barbecue. The looters stole a power generator and cut the wires. There was nothing to use for heating the premises, one deer died from the cold.

“When the February frosts came, we realized that the animals would simply freeze to death. And we asked for help,” says livestock expert Sofiya Ermolenko.

The Scientists of the Sochi Geographical Society (SGO) evacuated the animals from the Safari Park within two hours, and first of all, they relocated the heat-loving animals. As a result, a mongoose, porcupine, coatimundis, corsac foxes, two sea eagles, an imperial eagle, and an eagle-owl were taken to the SGO’s area. Small animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits were transferred to the Ecological and Biological Centre. Young nature lovers take care of them there. The indigenous inhabitants of the Caucasus - raccoons and jackals - went to the “Laura” enclosure complex at the Caucasian Reserve already inhabited by the animals that once were in trouble and saved. The new inhabitants were cleaned and cured, all tests were carried out, and after a quarantine period, they were moved to enclosures where other animals were. Ordinary Sochi residents also joined in saving the animals, they immediately began bringing food, hay and transferring money. As a result, about 200,000 roubles were collected, which will be used, among other things, for the construction of comfortable enclosures.

“The area of the Sochi Geographical Society is 40 acres, spacious enclosures for animals will appear here. A visit to such a ‘zoo’ will be free. Many people want to take the animals. But they do not understand that wild animals are not a cat or a dog, it is simply impossible to keep them in an apartment,” explains Alexander Zobnin, Chairman of the Sochi Geographical Society.

You cannot keep them in an apartment but you can keep them on a farm. Grant, a Sochi farmer, took a camel named Kesha from the Safari Park for temporary keeping. It took more than two hours to walk down with the animal from Akhshtyr to the village of Nizhnyaya Shilovka where his farm is located. Grant breeds cows, pigs, goats, and poultry on his farm. A separate spacious enclosure was built for Kesha where the camel can stay until the animal can have a permanent ‘home’ somewhere.

“Kesha feels good. It is very kind, as soon as we brought Kesha in, it began to pose for photos and smile,” the farmer says.

The first task is to feed the animal well so that its humps do not ‘hang like rags’. The camel’s diet includes oats, hay and salt, which Kesha loves very much. Recently, the grunting oxes that were in the Safari Park also joined the camel. They ran away from the enclosures and wandered around the mountains for more than two weeks. The snow helped as the animal tracks became clearly visible. But they are still searching for the female camel Zukhra that escaped from the Safari Park. Zukhra is not in danger of starvation but poachers are of danger to the animal.

The biggest concern was the fate of the bear named Winnie. The bear came to the Safari Park at the age of three from a circus family, and of course, Winnie could not live in the wild. But the owners of the Safari Park were not going to take this bear, and not because it was expensive to keep the bear. Winnie the Pooh was a vegetarian and never tasted meat, it ate 1.5 kilogrammes of porridge a day, two kilos of fish and loved apples very much. But the responsibility of keeping the bear was serious, and a strong enclosure fenced with a double guard grid was required. As a result, they planned to simply shoot the bear not to have troubles with feeding animal, as well as its accommodation and transportation.

“Winnie is good, friendly, never showed aggression. Of course, we didn’t try to get inside the enclosure, but the bear really likes to communicate with the workers, they even scratched its belly through the bars, and the bear enjoyed this,” says the livestock expert of the Safari Park Sofiya Ermolenko.

The rescue operation to save the bear, codenamed “Winnie the Pooh”, took seven hours. The scientists were helped by rescuers and power engineers who provided special transport. Apples and milk porridge, Winnie’s favourite meals, helped get the bear into the vehicle. A two-storied spacious enclosure was built at the base of the Sochi Geographical Society; to make it, the old cages where the bear was kept were cut and dismantled. When everything necessary is prepared for the bear, Winnie will be transferred to the “Veles” animal rescue centre in the Leningrad Region.

It seems that the story of Winnie the Pooh and all the animal has a happy end. But it’s not an end yet. A prosecutor’s investigation into animal cruelty is underway. We hope that the guilty persons will be punished. You’re responsible for what you have tamed.