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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 February, 2004, 12:32 GMT
Ukraine zoo offers animals hope
By Helen Fawkes
BBC Kiev correspondent

Raj the tiger has a nasty glint in his eye.

He guards bloody slabs of meat and snarls at families who walk past his small wire cage.

Zookeeper Oleg Zubkov, a former Soviet Navy officer, wants to talk to the latest addition to his zoo which specialises in helping dangerous or abandoned animals.

Oleg rescued three condemned tigers which were supposed to be put down.

Raj the tiger
Oleg doesn't mind a gentle pawing from Raj the tiger
One of them killed a circus trainer during a rehearsal in Southern Ukraine and all of them are considered dangerous.

The tigers have been put in separate cages.

We go to see Raj as the other two are sulking in their shelters. As soon as the door is opened, Raj slips a paw around Oleg's leg and pulls it into his mouth.

Oleg struggles free, he isn't injured or even angry that an animal he has rescued has just tried to attack him.

"I feel a duty to save these animals, anyway Raj is just hungry," he says.

Alcoholic ape

The tiger's new home is the only private zoo in Ukraine, located halfway up a mountain in the Crimean resort of Yalta. It is run by Oleg, but he was not supposed to become a zookeeper.

When Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union he trained to be a navy officer but he became disillusioned with the USSR around the time of perestroika - Mikhail Gorbachev's reform process.

I like to go inside their cages and communicate with them
Oleg Zubkov
He set up a company selling jumpers in Kiev but he and his family fled south after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

"There's a good boy John," Oleg says, trying to reassure an anxious-looking monkey.

Now sober, John is a reformed alcoholic.

John climbs out of its box which has been painted like a dolls house, walks across his cage and holds Oleg's outstretched hand.

"He used to be owned by a local restaurant where he was forced to drink vodka, cognac and beer from a glass to entertain customers," Oleg says.

Like John, many of the animals at the Yalta Zoo have been rescued.

"A lot of circuses and zoos have suffered since the end of the Soviet Union; the government stopped giving them any money," says Oleg.

Short staffed

Gosha the camel was found living on a beach in the Crimea after his circus owners went bust and dumped all the animals they could not sell. Now Gosha has a small fenced-off area at the top of the zoo with a view of a zebra and two lamas.

For the zoos and circuses that still operate it is a struggle to survive.

"Many of them can't even afford to feed their animals," says Oleg.

Oleg and one of his animals

There are more than 500 animals at Yalta Zoo. Lions, leopards and tigers are the most expensive, costing a total of $250 (132) a day to keep - that's two and a half times the average monthly salary.

Ticket sales alone pay for the running of the zoo. To cut costs, Oleg and his family live in a metal hut inside the zoo.

Natasha Lishtovanaya is one of eight workers here; this size of zoo in Europe would normally have 50 people.

"It's difficult getting rid of bad habits from animals that used to be in circuses or restaurants as their owners have often been quite cruel to them," she says.

All over the zoo, New Age music can be heard from loud speakers "to calm the animals".

Oleg's approach to animals is unconventional and very hands on.

Fairy tale

One of the lions used to be allowed to run around the zoo after closing time, until he died recently.

Like most people in the Crimea, Oleg is ethnic Russian. Among the 100,000 visitors they get each year, Oleg has noticed a rise in the so-called novy Russians - 'New Russians' - who have got rich after the end of the Soviet Union.

"Most people like the rabbits the best, but the New Russians prefer the tigers because of their killer instinct," he says.

To buy the land, Oleg sold everything he owned, but he admits it is not quite up to European standards.

"Most of the zoos in Ukraine can't be compared to those in the west. We've got a lot to do to achieve perfection."

Most animals live in small wire cages but Oleg is gradually phasing them out.

Inside one of the new pens, a kangaroo basks in the February sun. This is one of the warmest parts of Ukraine and the scenery is spectacular.

Above the zoo are snow-capped mountains and below is the Black Sea.

Yalta Zoo is also known as the Fairy Tale Zoo, named after a nearby valley with the same name.

But for many, like Raj the tiger, it's not so much a fairytale ending as a last chance - without it a lot of these animals would have died.

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