Zoo animals escape amid flooding in former Soviet republic

TBILISI, Georgia — Severe flooding in the Georgian capital left at least 12 people dead Sunday and triggered a big-game hunt across the city for lions, tigers, a hippopotamus and other dangerous animals that escaped from Tbilisi’s ravaged zoo.

Residents were warned to stay indoors as police conducted the hunt, but fear deepened as night fell on the city of 1.1 million with some of the animals still on the loose.

“The daytime wasn’t bad,” said resident Khariton Gabashvili, “but tonight everyone has to be very careful because all the beasts haven’t been captured. They haven’t been fed, and in their hungry state they might attack people.”

Heavy rain turned a normally pleasant city stream into a fierce torrent that destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes in the former Soviet republic. Officials said 12 people were known to have died and about two dozen others were missing.

There were no immediate reports that any of the dead were killed by the animals, which ran off after the floodwaters destroyed their enclosures. Among the beasts that escaped were bears, wolves and monkeys.

A hippopotamus — an extremely aggressive animal with the ability to run faster than humans in short bursts — was spotted lumbering through a flooded square not far from the zoo and was shot with a tranquilizer dart. Other animals were hunted down and killed.

The carcasses of at least a lion, a boar and a tiger were seen, and zoo authorities said six wolves were also dead.

Authorities said the animals may have fled to just about any corner of Tbilisi, including the forests on the steep hills in the city’s heart.

“I feel frenzied. The youngsters can’t go out and walk around. I sat on the balcony with them and played games, so they could breathe some fresh air,” said 25-year-old Khatuna Bolkvadze, a mother of two who lives near the zoo.

Zoo spokeswoman Mzia Sharashidze said a count of the escaped animals was not immediately possible because so many of the zoo’s enclosures were under water. But she said five lions were unaccounted for and many monkeys had escaped.

Three zoo workers were found dead on its grounds, including a woman who less than a month ago lost an arm in a tiger attack. Her husband was also reported dead.

The floodwaters gouged huge chunks out of roads and swamped numerous homes. Helicopters circled the city, and volunteers and rescue workers labored to help residents despite the danger from the escaped animals.

“On this small street there are five dead, three houses completely washed out and everyone is affected,” said Lamara Zumburidze, a resident of the hardest-hit section of the city. “I don’t know where to sit, where to lie, what to do.”

Some officials accused authorities of using unnecessary force against the wild beasts.

Zoo director Zurab Gurielidze said one of the park’s most beloved attractions, a young white lion named Shumba, had been found shot in the head.

“Our Shumba is no more,” he lamented, according to the news agency Interfax. “It’s simply possible that someone exceeded his authority.”

The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as telling a Sunday Mass that Georgia’s former Communist rulers bear responsibility for the disaster.

“When Communists came to us in this country, they ordered that all crosses and bells of the churches be melted down and the money used to build the zoo,” he said. “The sin will not go without punishment. I am very sorry that Georgians fell so that a zoo was built at the expense of destroyed churches.”

Associated Press
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