Klaipeda - If you are standing in Jonusai, the serene, country-like vicinity on the outskirts of Klaipeda, make sure that you don't stretch out your hand if you hear a melodic feline purring. Your earthly journey might end up in the jaws of the 300 kilo-plus Asian tiger. However, if you happen to know Edvardas Legeckas, owner of the Klaipeda Zoo, he may suggest bringing you into the tiger's den yourself, and take a few snapshots of him and his roaring friend in there. Honestly speaking, I fiercely declined his proposal, but then he smirked, and to the awe of the flocking onlookers, bravely walked into the feline's den, just to hug his sleepy buddy.
"Some people might think I am out of my mind. But I tend to trust my mammals, birds and reptiles more than humans. Animals are much cleverer than we may think. They are more trustworthy. Believe me, I know what I am talking about," he says confidently.
Legeckas, a veterinarian by profession, believes that most of the people show their real face when dealing with animals. Therefore, his major concern here (by the way, he tends to call it "a zoological collection") is the mammal on top of the evolutionary chain 's the human being.
"The more people that are in the zoo, the more problems they cause. No day passes without an assault on the animals. When I see small kids with sticks in their hands chasing storks or pelicans, or teenagers trying to get on the back of a young hind, their and, particularly, their parents' behavior is mind-blowing to me. That is what I will never be able to understand," he sullenly shakes his chin. Recently, a tipsy young fellow broke a deer's backbone when trying to saddle it. The guy bore no responsibility, because of him being underage.
But troublemakers make up only 5 's 10 percent of all visitors. On this lovely, sunny September Saturday, when Legeckas and I were strolling from one aviary to another, flocks of visitors, mostly young families with toddlers and kids, were streaming into the zoo. The rest, the 90 percent of visitors, are real lovers of nature and its creatures.
While Legeckas was showing his "farm," which takes up a territory of three and a half hectares, camels, from their spacious paddock, were gawking at numerous onlookers, different kinds of monkeys were cheering up a group of school children, squirrels were zipping up and down branches of a tree, deer were sauntering in a newly built aviary, wild boars were roaming around in their own roomy enclosure.
You bet right 's most of the animals wanted to greet their two-legged Master by kissing and sniffing him out!
There are over 400 different animals, more than 50 different species, in the zoo.
Soon the lovely vivacity will calm down, as Mini Zoo operates seven days a week, but only from April to November. It will be open only on weekends starting Nov. 1.
The 47-year-old zoo owner cherishes plans for its expansion, up to six hectares in total, but his dreams might never be fulfilled for one reason 's the only private zoo in Lithuania struggles against serious difficulties.
"No private zoo can work profitably without numerous donations, charitable assistance from big enterprises, the state itself," he is convinced.
So far he has succeeded in attracting PALINK, the joint stock venture that runs IKI supermarkets, thus providing the zoo with meat, bread, eggs, corn, vegetables and fruits. All free of charge.
Zoo inhabitants consume approximately 1 ton of fodder every day. Without PALINK's charity, the zoo's existence would be in doubt.
For the expansion, more full time workers should be employed, but that is what Legeckas cannot afford, for a simple reason 's the zoo doesn't generate much money. He employs only two full-time workers 's zoo keepers - and manages to pay them only a basic salary.
Legeckas mostly relies on his family's volunteer help 's his two adult daughters (they jokingly nicknamed a donkey after their father), sister, his brother-in-law and numerous friends are always here when needed. On weekends, several teenage boys from a children's foster home in Klaipeda eagerly help with the zoo's maintenance.
"We love being here. We can't wait to get here. It feels so good to be around animals and care about them," said the helpers.
"I couldn't survive without my family's and the boys' help," Legeckas admits and a smile curves an arch on his lips.
He would like to bring to his zoo more exotic animals, except that transportation of some mammals, depending on their rarity and size, may cost from 5,000 to 15,000 euros. For that reason, almost all animals 's 80 percent, to be exact - are brought up in Jonusai.
However, soon three young pumas from Wroclaw Zoo will add to the existing animal collection.
Klaipeda Zoo meets all European zoo requirements, including strict requirements on animal welfare.
The zoo's history reaches the early '90s when Legeckas bought a few acres of land on the deserted outskirts of Klaipeda. He had moved several times before, and wherever the man went, he carried boxes and cages holding his lizards, rabbits, cats, squirrels and a lynx. The animal lover and his chirruping, squeaking, growling and snarling friends roamed until they settled in Jonusai, where he initially built only a few aviaries and a tiny cottage for himself. However, what had to be a daily escape from routine turned into a serious business.
To tell the truth, it's not that successful so far. "Honestly speaking, I love my animals so much that I can't imagine my life without them, but if somebody wanted to take over my business, I'd seriously consider it. I'd rather stay here as a zookeeper or veterinarian. I'd rather walk around patting and caressing my animals. Administrative burdens sometime get unbearable," says Legeckas. Then he grins, proudly adding that he doesn't believe that a newcomer would take better care of his inhabitants. No one who knows him well doubts this.