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Feature 25 Oct 17

Gallery: Rescued Lion Cubs Expose Cruelty at Bulgarian Zoo

Animal rescue groups are calling for the closure of Bulgaria’s Razgrad zoo after two lion cubs were rescued following an accident which left a third dead. 

Mariya Cheresheva

In early September, Lubomila Krivoshieva, director of the Sofia-based charity Wild Animals received an unusual call. A concerned visitor at the zoo in Razgrad, a town in northeast Bulgaria, had just witnessed some adult lions in one of the cages trampling several cubs.

After a caretaker from the zoo told the lady that nothing could be done about the tiny lions, she reached out to the charity in desperation, despite the fact it doesn’t specialise in the wild animals.

“Initially I was shocked. I said, there is no way to take in lions, this is absurd! But then, together with our volunteers, we decided we couldn’t leave them like that,” Krivoshieva told BIRN on Tuesday in the Good Idea vet clinic in Sofia.

Now, the clinic is home to two of the one-and-a-half-month-old cubs, Therese and Masud, who are given 24/7 care from vets and the volunteers at the Wild Animals foundation. The third baby lion, which was also in the cage during the accident, was not that lucky and died before the rescue team arrived on the scene.

Against all odds, the two new-borns, who had never been breastfed by their mother, are recovering well. Growing bigger with each new day, they eat and play well, while waiting for a new home abroad.

But their case has exposed how cruel and illegal practices that have been in use at the zoo for years have never been picked-up or sanctioned by state and municipal authorities.

As a result, the Intimate with the Nature Society, another animal rights group, has launched a petition calling on the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, the Ministry for Environment and Waters and the State Food Control Agency, to stop animal cruelty in Bulgarian zoos. By Tuesday, the petition had been signed by over 5,800 people from Bulgaria and around the globe.

Struggle for the Cubs’ Lives

Three people were needed to feed the cub with a probe. Photo: Wild Animals foundation

“It was horrible,” Krivoshieva said while recalling the first few days after the two lions were rescued.

Doctor Dimitar Ivanov, a vet from the Good Idea clinic, explained that teams from the centre and volunteers from the Wild Animals foundation had provided round-the-clock care for the young animals without pay.

He said saving Masud was a particular challenge because the cub had been crushed by his father and had suffered neck injuries that have prevented him from developing a natural suckling reflex required for feeding. Every two hours, three people were needed to feed him milk with a medical probe.

More recently the cub has started eating by himself, which Ivanov has hailed as “a big celebration for everyone”.

“Providing care was strikingly difficult. We had never taken care of a lion! It has nothing to do with raising a cat. We had to learn many new things from scratch. It was very strange,” Krivoshieva said.

“Everyone said that the cubs would not survive. No one in Bulgaria has raised a baby lion from its first day. But for now, we are making it. I hope things keep on going this way,” she said.

The vets think the mother rejected her cubs due to stress as the zoo sits in a place totally unfit for animals, right next to the stadium of star Bulgarian football team Ludogorets.

Added to that, the lioness gave birth to the cubs during a municipal fair held on zoo grounds, which attracted a lot of people and noise.

“It is a combination of many things, mostly, a severe lack of competence,” Krivoshieva said.

 ‘Cruel practices’ exposed

The Razgrad zoo has been ordered to resettle the five lions which still live there. Photo: Intimate with the Nature Society

“At the time, when we took the lions, I had the feeling that we were just helping a zoo handle an unfortunate situation, an accident. Later, when other NGOs started digging into the situation, it became clear that what had happened was a result of years of violations at the zoo,” the animal welfare activist said.

“There is not one thing done properly there.”

Krivoshieva’s words were also confirmed by an inspection carried out by teams of the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Water in nearby Ruse, the regional Food Safety Inspectorate and other NGOs later in September.

The survey uncovered a number of irregularities at the zoo. Among the most striking was the fact that it had worked without a licence since 2014 and had not taken steps to renew it, despite an EU Zoos Directive stipulating zoos must be shut down within two years after losing their licence.

On top of this, Razgrad zoo, home to around 20 wild animals, had never been registered as an animal breeding site and therefore had not been checked regularly by the State Food Safety Agency.

Nor does it have a contract with a vet in charge of monitoring and vaccinating the animals.

Gabriela Papadopova, director of the Intimate with the Nature Society organization, which also participated in the checks, told BIRN that no vaccinations had been carried out at the zoo, constituting a health risk not only for the animals, but for visitors to the zoo as well.

The inspections also exposed the dire situation of Asen – a young lion, born in 2014 at the zoo, suffering from rickets, a muscoskeletal disease often caused by a vitamin D deficiency. According to the findings, he is separated from the other lions in an isolated cage with no access to sunlight or adequate care.

“He is hidden. One can only hear him when he cries. This is shocking,” Lubomila Krivoshieva said.

She recalls a situation in 2014 where local Razgrad administrators organized a tender to sell lion cubs, including Asen, but was stopped because selling wild animals by zoos is forbidden by Bulgarian law.

“It is unclear what actually happened here in past years. Have lions been sold? Who have they been sold to? Do such cruel practices exist in other zoos in Bulgaria?” Dr Ivanov asked.

Following the check, on September 28 the Environment Ministry issued an order to Razgrad Municipality, which is in charge of the zoo, to immediately stop lion breeding, to resettle the five lions currently there to another caretaker where proper conditions exist and to take steps to regain its licence.

BIRN has contacted the ministry and the Razgrad municipality to ask about the progress made on the recommendations, but received no answer by deadline.

The head of Razgrad zoo, Dr. Mihail Baltadjiev, a chief agricultural expert at the local municipality, told BIRN he is on a sick leave and is not authorized to talk to the media.

Looking for home abroad

Photo: Wild Animals foundation

Meanwhile, Therese and Masud weigh over five kilograms each and already need a separate room in the clinic where they live. Doctors say they cannot keep them there after they are more than three months old, when they will become uncontrollable.

No other Bulgarian zoo has volunteered to give them shelter due to broader lack of capacity.

The team at Wild Animals has contacted the Four Paws International animal charity who are now looking for a rescue centre outside of Bulgaria where the cubs can receive adequate care. After they are fully grown, a permanent home would be sought for them in a natural reserve or another zoo abroad.

“They cannot go back to any Bulgarian zoo, I would say luckily, because this gives us a greater chance to find them a place somewhere abroad,” Krivoshieva said.

“If they stay in Bulgaria all our efforts would have been completely wasted,” said Dr Ivanov.

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