Tallinn Zoo's struggle against extinction

  • 2004-08-12
  • By Alec Charles
Tallinn - When I first met Franz a few years ago, I took an instant liking to him. Tall and pale, he exudes the wounded confidence of one who knows he could be doing something better with his life. I've visited him several times since and have never once been disappointed by his humor, sincerity and natural charm.

It therefore came as something of a shock to hear that my dear friend Franz had recently bitten off the hand of a man who'd been offering him a cookie.
It may be said, in Franz's defense, that he was woken in the middle of the night by a drunkard who - after the cookie gambit - proceeded to batter him over the head with a vodka bottle. A further mitigating factor is that Franz is an 800-kilo polar bear - the world's largest land carnivore.
The man has been identified as "Janek," a 31-year-old resident of the small town of Keila, close to Tallinn.
Estonia's Animal Protection Act prohibits any action which causes injury or pain to an animal, and the rules of public conduct in Tallinn forbid the unauthorized feeding of any animal in the Tallinn Zoo. While police have already launched an investigation into the incident, they cannot currently comment on any specific charges.
"As the man is now hospitalized, we have not yet been able to question him. He will come to the police station next week," says police spokesperson Madis Tilja.
And what of Franz, the polar bear?
"The day after the attack, he was in a nervous mood," says the bear's keeper, Aljona Beresnjavetsene. "He was quite upset."
But today Franz seems fine. Visitors crowd around his enclosure, eager to catch a glimpse of the notorious mauler.
"They're looking for blood and bones," comments Tiiu Viires, zoo librarian.
But Franz ignores his voyeurs. He's taking a siesta at the back of his cage,
"He has a cunning nature," Beresnjavetsene adds. "He's not very friendly."
She admits that Franz has been involved in one previous biting incident, but that was a while ago.
"Who is to blame?" asks Katrin Vels of the Estonian Society for the Protection of Animals. "The drunk man. If a man decides to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into a river, you cannot blame the bridge or the river for the man's death."
"I've worked in the zoo since November 1968," adds zoo director, Mati Kaal. "This is the 11th such accident [involving a visitor and an animal]. Other times it's been the whole arm. This is the first time it was just a hand."

Zoo diplomacy
Occasional animal attacks aren't the only thing to have put the Tallinn Zoo on the map. Boasting more than 5,000 specimens and over 300 different species, it's one of northern Europe's most impressive zoological collections. And nobody's prouder of this than Mati Kaal.
The director's office is not what you'd expect of the executive director of a major tourist attraction. A cabinet displays a collection of African animal carvings and the skulls of large carnivores - big cats, I guess. On the wall above his cluttered desk hangs a quote from Winston Churchill: "Success is the possibility to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm."
In his 36 years at the zoo, the director has, as he says, done just about everything. During the Soviet period the Zurich Zoo offered Tallinn a pair of black rhinoceros. This generous offer posed only one problem - who, in those suspicious years, could be sent to Switzerland to pick the animals up?
The directive came straight from the Ministry of Culture in Moscow: Mati Kaal was the only man to be trusted with such a delicate task. And so the zoo director drove across Europe with a brace of rhino in tow.
"Zoos are important for society," he says. "It's important that people understand all the problems of nature. A zoo is an embassy, and the animals are the diplomats."
Despite its array of exotic animals, the zoo has been criticized for the conditions of some of its less fortunate residents.
"It's impossible for us in just a few years to do all the things that western zoos did in 30 or 40 years." Kaal says. "It may take us 20 years. The biggest problem is the money. The city government has promised us 10 million kroons (600 000 euros) a year to rebuild the zoo, but we need much more. When we get EU money, it will be quicker."
Located on the site of a former military base, many of the zoo's buildings are converted army warehouses - not exactly what you'd call state-of-the-art.
"It's depressing," says Annika, a visitor to the zoo. "The animals don't have enough room, especially those big polar bears."
In recent years, however, the zoo has built impressive facilities for its birds, bison, chimpanzees, camels and wild horses. The latest beneficiaries - now settled atop a series of purpose-built hillocks next to a new wetlands area - are the goats. The zoo is a global leader in the breeding of goats.
In fact, its collection of hoofed animals ranks second only to San Diego - the Harvard of the zoological world. The Tallinn Zoo breeds more than a dozen species of sheep and goat, including about 10 percent of the world's captive Turkmenian markhor population. It's also one of only half a dozen zoos in the world to host the East Caucasian Tur, a troubled native of troubled Chechnya.

Last chance to see?
In addition to these rarities, the zoo houses a number of other critically endangered species. The rarest is the Amur leopard, a great golden cat which hails from Siberia. Tallinn Zoo was the first zoo in the former Soviet Union to breed this animal. Today, there may be as few as 30 of these leopards left in the wild. It's an unusual and extraordinary privilege to see this beautiful creature. Sadly, few visitors afford it more than a glance as it dozes in its bare metal cage.
"Our Amur leopard once escaped from its cage," says Inari Leiman, the zoo's education officer. "It was early morning - before the zoo was open to visitors. Someone had left the door open. The leopard just walked to the end of the building and then came back to its cage."
With ambitious plans to build a new leopard enclosure, the zoo hopes to become an international breeding center for these animals. conservation officer Tiit Maran, however, remains cautious about the future of the species.
The zoo also boasts Europe's second largest herd of Pere David's deer. There are currently only about 300 of these deer left in the wild in their native China.
"The problem is what to do with them," says Maran. "We've tried asking the Chinese government to take some of them back."
Maran runs the international captive breeding program for the European mink. In the mid-19th century, these slinky predators lived all over Europe. Today, due to habitat loss, hunting, and competition from their American cousins - feral fugitives from mink farms - the species has been reduced to 5 percent of its original range.
Holding about 140 European mink - nearly 70 percent of the entire captive population - the zoo has recently started releasing the animals on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa.
"This is a dream conservation project for zoo people," says Tiit Maran. "It has all the exciting elements - a captive-breeding facility, and the release of animals into the wild. A species is a real species only if it's in the wild. Animals in zoos are surrogates for the real thing.
"Many people say zoos only use conservation to sell tickets. Others say zoos are all about conservation. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between."