Special police units called to Tbilisi zoo during this weekend’s devastating flood have been accused of overreacting by unnecessarily shooting many of the animals, as hundreds of volunteers joined the clear-up effort at the flattened site.
Some policemen were seen taking selfies alongside the bodies of tigers, lions and other large animals that they had shot, posing like big-game hunters, two zoo staff in Georgia’s capital city told the Guardian.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said one worker, in tears as she spoke, and asking not to be named. “It was like a trophy for them.”
In one case, staff said a wolf they had successfully tranquilised and safely tethered was then shot by police as it lay on the ground. Only three of the zoo’s original 20 wolves survived.
The Georgian government says at least 13 people were killed when a small river running through the city burst its banks, flooding several residential areas and the zoo in just minutes. After a disaster that caught the city completely off guard, 11 people are still reported missing.
The zoo now believes it has lost more than half of its animals, including all its tigers, and most of its lions and bears. And, while some escaped, including bears and a hippo, it now appears most animals either drowned or were shot inside the zoo park boundary.
More reports came in during the day on Monday of escaped animals in the streets, including a panther, but so far “all have turned out to be hoaxes and rumours”, said zoo director Zurab Gurielidze, as he fielded an endless series of calls.
Begi, the large hippo that was rescued from the streets outside the zoo on Sunday, has now been placed inside one of the elephant cages, on higher ground not affected by the flooding.
Young volunteers in T-shirts and boots have been helping zoo staff clear the dense, cloying mud that now covers much of the zoo, and have been pulling out dozens of animal carcasses, including several lions.
One of the zoo vets went quiet as he recognised one of the bodies as Shumba, a rare white lion cub they had been caring for separately after it was rejected by itsbirth mother. To keep it company, the zoo had placed the cub with a dog and they became inseparable. The dog, called Karikula, survived.
“The police special forces told us they shot Shumba because he was drowning,” said zoo secretary Julia Kandarova, as she watched the recovery effort from the zoo’s headquarters, which still bore a muddy water mark from the flooding beyond the first floor. “But was it necessary to kill him?”
It seems the torrent was caused by a blockage upstream in the usually small Vera river through the city, which burst after Saturday’s unusually heavy rains.
But some workers expressed support for the police actions, especially as the deluge of water meant lions and tigers could leap out of their cages and on to a nearby road.
“It was night time and there were wild animals running around,” said one of the zoo’s vets, Ivane Daresalia. “They had to be careful in that situation.”
Gurielidze, who was himself caught in the flood as he was checking on the animals, said: “We still don’t know exactly what happened, but there needs to be a full investigation.”
A Georgian government spokesman said: “We have not heard reports of police taking selfies with the animals,” and added: “The police did the best they could and tried to save as many animals as possible.”