You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

“Don't Shoot! I'll Put the Animals Back! Please!”

How a flash flood that killed hundreds of animals at the Tbilisi Zoo explains the failure of post-Soviet Georgia.

Late in the evening on Saturday, June 13, a heavy rain fell on Tbilisi, Georgia, for several hours. Zurab Gurielidze, director of the Tbilisi Zoo, was at the movies with his wife for most of it. The zoo, the largest in Georgia, sat on 22 acres in the middle of downtown. It was founded in 1927, five years after Georgia was absorbed into the former Soviet Union. Last year, 500,000 people—10 percent of the country’s population—came to glimpse African penguins, East Caucasian turs, a white rhinoceros, elephants, bears, wolves, and a dik-dik, a miniature antelope. Residents of nearby apartment buildings often called at night to say the lions were roaring loudly—were they perhaps sick? Staffers patiently explained that lions are nocturnal; they feed after dark. People paid particular attention to Shumba, the zoo’s rare white lion cub. Abandoned by his mother at birth in December 2013, hand-raised by the zoo, and now the companion of a black poodle named Karakula, Shumba had become a national celebrity, appearing on television and inspiring intense devotion from both residents and zookeepers, who called him “the white prince.”

A little after midnight, when Gurielidze and his wife checked in on the zoo, the rain had stopped, and the grounds were calm. The animals—lions, tigers, bears, and jaguars—were quiet. Gurielidze, a rugged 55-year-old with cropped gray hair and light eyes, went to check on the lower-lying parts of the zoo, which were prone to flooding during heavy rain. The predator enclosures there, which faced the Vere River, a small trickle of water flowing along the Chabua Amirejibi highway, were Soviet-designed and arguably could still be called cages. Large glass-and-wood enclosures on higher ground were under construction. Already, five lions had moved three months earlier into their new lush green home; the enclosure for the next pride was almost finished.

Gurielidze discovered a few inches of water on the ground of the hyena enclosures—the zoo had two species, a spotted couple and two striped males. But they were playing happily—jumping and butting each other into muddy puddles. Malkhaz Chitadze, a 59-year-old zookeeper, was at the door of the small house he shared on the grounds with his wife, next to the animal nursery. The couple had no children, and the zookeeper’s wife, Guliko, a 57-year old nurse with fluorescent red hair, had bottle-fed all the baby felines with the gusto befitting a den mother. But on this night, she was on bed rest inside, recovering from an arm amputation after being mauled by a tiger a few weeks before.

Gurielidze began to make his way back to his truck when the cars on the highway started blaring their horns.

Someone screamed: “Water!”

Gurielidze turned to see a liquid avalanche. It was coming from the highway, crashing over the hyena enclosure. By the time he reached his wife in their truck, where there had once been a road was only water, churning with mud and debris. He tried to reverse, but the engine failed. The couple jumped out and ran toward the bear cage. The water was now waist high. They grabbed the railing and pulled themselves along the bear, tiger, jaguar, and lion enclosures, bar by bar. Ostriches and cranes washed by them.

Clinging to pipes, they navigated up the side of the Chitadze’s house, over the wall, and onto the roof. Even there, the water reached their knees and was still rising. They climbed onto a parapet above the tiger enclosure. Behind him, the white rhinoceros, the Caucasian red deer, the mountain goats, and the zebras were trying to make their way to higher ground.

The electricity was out, but the night was clear. The fourlane Chabua Amirejibi highway was completely submerged. A car floated by, its headlights blinking in the dark. The large predators that couldn’t escape their locked cages were trapped. Gurielidze hoped their deaths had been quick.

A voice rang out in the distance: “Help! I’m in a tree! Bears! Bears on the loose! And wolves!”

“There’s no danger!” Gurielidze called back. “Please be calm. They won’t hurt you!”

An hour passed, maybe more. Gurielidze and his wife huddled together. Suddenly, gunfire pierced the silence. Gurielidze couldn’t see what was happening, but he knew instantly.

“Don’t shoot!” he cried. But the volley continued. “Please rescue me! I’ll put the animals back! Please!” He began to weep. Beneath them on the parapet, a log hit the iron bars of the tiger cage, creating a small dent almost directly underneath them, through which a white tiger made its escape.

As a boy, Gurielidze went to the zoo every day after school, repeatedly getting into trouble with the staff for sneaking into the elephant cage; he was appointed zoo director in 2006. He had spent the past nine years trying to modernize this dismal Soviet-era facility, helping Georgians understand the natural world in a new, more progressive way. Over the next week, as the waters receded and Georgians took stock of what the flood had done, Gurielidze would emerge as a sort of tragic hero, an advocate for animals in a country dominated by its cynical and ineffectual political class. The flood swept away the facade of progress politicians insist exists in Georgia, revealing the deep problems this small, young country must confront. Georgia’s challenge is to contend with elements beyond its control, still trapped within the remnants of its Soviet-era enclosure.

Workers remove the carcass of a bear killed in flooding at the Tbilisi Zoo.

In 1989, as the USSR was crumbling and the nationalist leadership of Zviad Gamsakhurdia seemed to promise Georgians a better future, Gurielidze and a group of four zoologists founded NACRES, one of Georgia’s first environmental organizations, with the goal of reintroducing large carnivores to the wild and to campaign for the creation of national reserves. It was a time of great optimism. In April 1991, Georgia declared independence from Moscow and NACRES forged a partnership with the Tbilisi Zoo to raise wolves with the goal of eventually releasing them. But the country’s much anticipated freedom did not turn into stability. In December of that year, disaffected politicians and the leader of the national guard launched a coup against Gamsakhurdia, who hid in a bunker in the parliament building as heavy fighting raged in the center of the capital. Armed gangs roamed the city, civil war broke out, the country collapsed, and a long, hungry winter followed.

Gurielidze and several NACRES staffers moved into a small hut at the zoo to protect their wolves. The zoo’s polar bear shared its enclosure with a stray cat. When the bear died, the cat disappeared but returned a few days later, climbed into its old cage, and died. While some generous Georgians brought the zoo donations of bread, the predators needed protein. Gurielidze and his co-workers scavenged for scraps—cow noses and necks, pig heads. After a donation from the World Society for the Protection of Animals, they walked each day to the market to buy meat and fish for the animals as ordinary Georgians stared with famished eyes. They themselves survived on beans.

After the war ended, Georgians spent the next decade living in what was essentially a mafia state. Corruption was endemic, cronyism rampant, and crime savage. A disputed parliamentary election in 2003 led to the massive street protests called the Rose Revolution and the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet leader who took over after Gamsakhurdia fled. Reformer Mikheil Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM), came to power in 2004 on a promise to Westernize the country, reform its institutions, stem corruption, and liberalize the economy while pursuing membership in the European Union and NATO. 

“We all wanted a change and this new leader—Western educated, very energetic—talked a lot about liberal values, and human rights, and rule of law,” said Ana Natsvlishvili, chairwoman of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association. “We were all so hopeful.”

The first few years under Saakashvili brought rapid progress. The notoriously corrupt police force was reformed. Organized crime syndicates were brought down. The civil bureaucracy was streamlined and professionalized. The West soon came to view Georgia as an anomaly in the listless post-Soviet morass. Massive infrastructure projects funded by international aid money cropped up, and foreign direct investment soared.

Gurielidze, meanwhile, brought this spirit of reform and progress to the Tbilisi Zoo. A humane and modern zoo, he believed, would Europeanize the Georgian understanding of the environment and break the Soviet mindset in which nature exists only to serve man. In his first year, Gurielidze doubled the zoo’s budget and replaced 50 of the Soviet-built cages with the larger, more open enclosures familiar in the United States and Europe. An educational program for children that he implemented was centered on the value of environmental conservation. The zoo also began the application process to join the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, which demands adherence to rigorous animal-care standards, and which also allowed it to import new animal species from other zoos. It hoped its membership would be finalized in 2016.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s political honeymoon was ending. Saakashvili had cut corners for the sake of progress, strengthening the executive at the expense of institutional checks and balances. The country’s incarceration rate was among the highest in Europe—white-collar criminals shared cells with murderers. Judges followed the whims of an all-powerful public prosecutor’s office, often repeating charges verbatim in verdicts. As public discontent grew, Saakashvili clamped down on opposition. Businesses were expropriated and allegations of elite corruption began to surface. “The most frustrating thing is that Saakashvili had all the support, internally and externally,” said Shorena Shaverdashvili, a prominent Georgian journalist. “He did want to Westernize Georgia. He was sincere in that. But the way they did it and the methods they used—it was Bolshevik methods. Torture, spying, surveillance, just cruelty.”

In the fall of 2007, protesters converged in the center of Tbilisi calling for the government to resign. The security services cracked down, firing rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons into the crowds. Saakashvili moved up the presidential election and won by a narrow margin, amid allegations of fraud. Georgia’s path to NATO membership was complicated in April 2008, when France and Germany objected to extending it a Membership Action Plan, an early step to bringing a new country into the treaty organization, due to concerns over how Russia, which did not want a new NATO country on its border, might react. Four months later, those concerns were validated when Russia responded to Saakashvili’s attacks on Russian-backed separatists in Georgia’s South Ossetia region by rolling tanks across the border. Hundreds died in what became known as the Five-Day War. The fighting all but finished Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO and showed Russia’s determination to keep the former Soviet republic in its orbit.

Saakashvili’s UNM, realizing that its public support was slipping, redoubled efforts to pander to voters, promising jobs and new infrastructure. The Chabua Amirejibi highway was completed in time for Tbilisi’s local elections in 2010. The government also pledged to relocate the zoo to a new 118-acre site outside of the city. The mayor promised to raise the $50 million needed for the move, but nothing ever came of it. The zoo remained where it was.

Then, two weeks before the 2012 parliamentary elections, videos of horrific prison torture were leaked to the media. Georgian Dream, a political coalition dominated by the country’s wealthiest oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who kept his own exotic animal menageries, with peacocks, penguins, flamingoes, a zebra, and a kangaroo, campaigned against Saakashvili, promising to restore democracy. He won, and Georgian Dream spent its first years in office enthusiastically launching corruption cases against UNM officials, relying heavily on pretrial detention, in which those called in for questioning at the public prosecutor’s office were arrested and kept in jail to await trial.

AP Photo/Beso Gulashvili

It was early Sunday morning, the day after the flood, and Beggi, a 16-year-old hippo, was roaming Heroes’ Square in central Tbilisi, 400 yards from the zoo. Twelve people had been confirmed killed by that point, including Chitadze, the zookeeper, and his wife, Guliko. (The final death toll was 19 people.) Nearly 40 more were hospitalized. Along the path of the Vere River, some 120 homes had been damaged or destroyed, according to government officials. Damages were estimated to have reached $18 million. By the time a member of the zoo staff found Gurielidze and his wife on the parapet at around 3 a.m., roughly half of the zoo’s 600 animals were dead.

Beggi had hunkered down next to a Swatch store and was munching on leaves. A group of onlookers had crowded around, as had a detachment of special-force troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in flak jackets, with their weapons drawn. A NACRES worker named Bejan Lortkipanidze had driven in from a ranger station in Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, 90 miles away, with a tranquilizer rifle to subdue Beggi. The zoo’s only rifle was already in use inside the grounds.

A zoo veterinarian and Levan Butkhuzi, the editor of the Georgian edition of National Geographic, were waiting for Lortkipanidze with a tranquilizer dart. “Shoot it close to the ear, where the skin is thinnest, otherwise it won’t work,” the veterinarian said. Lortkipanidze loaded the rifle, peered through the scope, and fired. Beggi wrenched his head up, as if annoyed, but then relaxed. He swayed slightly, but didn’t fall. The zoologists and a handful of onlookers rushed over to herd him. “Beggi! Over there! Go there,” they called, smacking his backside, pounding sticks on the ground, trying to lead him out of the square. Slowly he began to move.

He stopped after a few hundred yards when some of the special forces stood in front of him to take photos. Gurielidze shouted angrily at them to stop playing around and help. Begrudgingly, the soldiers began moving cars and onlookers to create a corridor out of the square. They herded Beggi past a highway on-ramp, around cars, and through a gas station. He stopped every few feet for a little break and to eat a few leaves. It took about half an hour to get him back to the zoo, at which point the staff corralled him in the elephant enclosure.

The scene inside the zoo was devastating. Carcasses of predators were scattered along the hill that rose to the highway. Zoo officials said they believed they were shot trying to reach higher ground. (The government denied this.) A wolf that Butkhuzi had earlier helped tranquilize and tie to an enclosure had been shot. Blood pooled around its tethered head. Dead bears lay facedown in sludge, half covered in wood chips and mud. Shumba had been shot point blank in the head just outside his enclosure.

Where the hyena enclosure had been was a massive pool. Twisted metal and branches clogged the water. Two crocodiles swam in its depths. They were having a better time than most. A small mud patch rose from its center like an island. Dana, a striped hyena, sat on the island, shaking. Lortkipanidze and Ivane Daraselia, a 28-year-old zoo veterinarian, commandeered a red rescue services boat and paddled to the island. They tranquilized Dana and brought him back to one of the enclosures. He died of shock a few hours later.

A wild boar spotted earlier on the roof of the predator enclosure buildings was now stampeding toward the other end of the zoo. Daraselia ran after her until he reached the edge of the grounds, where he saw a member of the special forces with his gun drawn. “Don’t shoot! I have it,” he shouted and tranquilized the animal. Meanwhile, aggravated swans were running wild in the middle of the zoo, African penguins were nosing around the rubble, slicked in motor oil, and a bear sat on the second-story air-conditioner unit of the zoo’s administration building. Someone delivered a live penguin back to the zoo from the center of the city in a plastic dumpster.

Staff veterinarians were trying to count how many predators had died, using a scanner that could read the electronic chips the zoo had implanted in their necks. But the government had already started removing the corpses without informing anyone, and others were likely still under the debris. There were animal sightings all over downtown—bears, tigers, jackals, crocodiles. The zoo staff requested the media share any photos of dead animals in order to figure out who remained alive and needed to be recaptured; TV stations sent footage for analysis. Calls came in about bears inside apartment building basements. There were reports of tigers in a warehouse complex next to Heroes’ Square and in residential buildings nearby. Other people saw jackals in the suburbs. There were calls about a penguin swimming in the Mtkvari River towards Azerbaijan. (Most of the sightings turned out to be false.)

Outside of the zoo, a volunteer recovery process began to emerge. Thousands of people fanned out across the city with their own shovels and wheelbarrows, helping with the cleanup effort. “We had very minimal information from the government because they were reluctant to let volunteers in at all,” said Nick Davitashvili, one of the founders of a Facebook group, June 13 Volunteer Coordination Group, which quickly attracted 20,000 members. “We sort of started helping them and then basically took over the whole operation because they had no idea what to do.” Using money set aside by the government, the volunteers facilitated temporary housing for the families whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

The government’s response struck many people as symbolic of much of what was wrong with Georgia. Finger pointing started even before the recovery was fully underway. Georgian Dream politicians blamed UNM for shoddy work on the Chabua Amirejibi, claiming that its tunnels were the reason for the flood. UNM in turn blamed Georgian Dream for mismanagement and politicizing a tragedy. An analysis by the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN) determined the flash flood occurred along two debris-clogged tunnels dating to the Soviet era, which fed the Vere into the Mtkvari River, the main waterway that bisects Tbilisi. The first tunnel was on the southwest outskirts of the city; water had accumulated there for up to an hour before bursting through the obstruction and careening toward the zoo, taking out houses in the upscale Vake neighborhood. By CENN’s calculation, the government had almost two hours to warn the zoo. But no warning went out. Why hadn’t the government closed the highway? The first emergency service workers weren’t spotted by local media until hours after the flood: Why so late? Where were the rescue helicopters as people cowered on their roofs for hours through the night? And why had so many animals been shot overnight inside the zoo grounds?

The official answers to these questions left much to be desired. Helicopters, for example, weren’t used because they weren’t outfitted for rescue operations. Emergency rescue services had arrived well before the media spotted them; they just weren’t wearing official uniforms or driving official vehicles. As for the animals, government officials insisted they were a public menace and had to be killed.

Late Monday night, two days after the flood, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili appeared on television to announce that all the animals had been accounted for. The following morning, Mindia Janelidze, head of the State Security and Crisis Management Council, concurred at a news conference. “There is no threat from wild animals,” he said. “All animals have been accounted for. This information has been double-checked.” Tbilisi Zoo spokesperson Mzia Sharashidze, meanwhile, told reporters a striped hyena, a bear, a tiger, and possibly other animals were still missing and potentially on the loose in the city.

On Wednesday afternoon, a group doing an insurance assessment of a warehouse near Heroes’ Square ran screaming from the building: There was a tiger inside, and it had mauled one of the workers. The other workers broke windows to get out of the building, and the noise of the shattered glass scared away the animal. It was Maximus, a Bengal white tiger. He hadn’t been fed for four days. Special forces were called to the scene and shot him. The mauled worker, a man named Otar Tsukhishvili, 43, was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead of a severed carotid artery.

Garibashvili addressed the nation, calling for an investigation. “I want to apologize to the public for distributing false information,” he said. “However, let’s note that we received that information from the zoo administration.” A short while later, Gurielidze himself appeared on television, looking visibly exhausted, to read a statement: “I fully understand that it was because of the notice I gave to the government that it was considered that the danger did not exist anymore, and of course, I am the one to be blamed for all this.”

Zurab Gurielidze, shown here with a ten-week-old white tiger cub, has led the effort to modernize the Tbilisi Zoo.

Gurielidze was summoned to the office of the Tbilisi public prosecutor later that day. He was escorted to a small room and seated across a table from an investigator who demanded to know why the zoo hadn’t kept a proper animal count.

The worker’s death had, apparently, been caused by the double-counting of a dead tiger. The day after the flood, workers had discovered the body of a tiger outside the warehouse in which Maximus would later kill Tsukhishvili. The zoo staff recorded the body, but no one had removed the animal. Then, two days later, someone reported the carcass a second time. A veterinarian from the zoo was dispatched to the location and found it lying in the mud next to a dead bear and ostrich. As he was checking the other animals, government workers on the scene took the tiger away. The veterinarian didn’t have a chance to confirm that it was the same tiger found before, so he counted it again. The zoo caught the error the next morning, realized that at least one tiger was missing, and Gurielidze informed the Ministry of Internal Affairs, several hours before Maximus killed Tsukhishvili. The investigator typed up his testimony.

Word of Gurielidze’s summons spread quickly. Georgians worried the government was seeking a scapegoat, and this was the first step in a well-rehearsed script of pretrial detention. “He was very defenseless, very vulnerable, and very sincere about the whole thing,” Shaverdashvili, the Georgian journalist, told me. “And we had this very irresponsible statement from the government. It was a huge contrast and a very symbolic one too.” The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association was concerned enough to send a high-profile attorney to represent him.

Public suspicion of Gurielidze’s treatment was heightened by the fact that no one from the government had been officially interrogated about the killing, just workers from the zoo. “Everybody felt this was a classic maneuver by the government,” said Butkhuzi, the National Geographic editor. “They call you for questioning, and they say on TV it’s just regular questioning. But 90 people out of 100 never leave.”

A Facebook page appeared that afternoon calling on people to protest near the parliament. “Let’s all gather and declare our support for Zurab Gurielidze and demand the resignation of the governments of state and the city,” the page declared. By 7:30 that night, hundreds of people had arrived, blowing whistles and holding up signs: “Keep your hands off!” “Do your job!” They raised their cell phones or held up black-and white printouts of Gurielidze’s photograph.

Meanwhile, in the prosecutor’s office, the interrogation came to an end, and Gurielidze and his lawyer reviewed his typed testimony. The investigator hadn’t recorded the crucial fact that the zoo had informed the Ministry of Internal Affairs about the missing tiger hours before the mauling. It was added only at the lawyer’s insistence. Gurielidze was then released.

As he left the prosecutor’s office, Gurielidze received a call from the prime minister. He backtracked on his televised statements and promised there would be no arrest. He invited Gurielidze to his office for a personal audience, which would give him the opportunity to repeat his about-face in front of TV cameras. (In typical Georgian fashion, he suggested on television that the protest was organized by nefarious elements seeking to undermine the country, namely, the political opposition.) Gurielidze soon learned about the protests in his defense. “It’s hard to explain how I felt. Amazed. This was very touching,” Gurielidze told me. “Maybe it never happened in Georgia before.” The protest had worked.

Evidence of the flood’s destruction was clearly visible when I visited Tbilisi in August. (It reopened to the public on September 13.) The affected neighborhoods were still under repair, with residents hard at work fixing their homes. The stain of the water line high up along some of the buildings was discernible. It altered the color of what remained standing, dividing structures into before and after. Along the Vere, some families would never move back—the government had determined it was too dangerous. The highway was under construction. After all the politicking, it was being rebuilt without any major safety alterations.

A final tally of 274 animals were found to have had died during the flood and its aftermath, including an aardvark, several foxes, two green guenons, two Siamang gibbons, six tigers, nine lions, eleven wolves, ten bears, 13 baboons, and three jaguars. The tiger that escaped while Gurielidze was standing on the parapet with his wife was found shot dead in the East Caucasian tur enclosure. The enclosure that once held the lion cub Shumba still stands empty. It took staffers a week to pump out the mud.

When I visited, swans were living with peacocks. Fidel, the Cuban crocodile, lived in the penguin pool for a few days after the flood before being moved into his new enclosure. Nelly, the Nile crocodile, was in the fish and aquarium house. Two wolves had been found alive in the zebra enclosure. The bear on the second-floor airconditioning unit was tranquilized, fell into the floodwaters, pulled onto a boat, and survived. She’s doing well now. The wild boar and her two piglets were taken to a farm outside the city. The city council promised to open the zoo on its 118-acre site outside the city within three years, pledging money to build a fence around the new grounds, but not earmarking the full relocation funding needed for the move. The zoo’s most immediate concern was winter housing for the surviving animals.

“We don’t want to have the worst zoo in the world. We want to have one of the good zoos,” Gurielidze said. He lit up when talking about the European zoos he wanted the Tbilisi Zoo to emulate, listing sites in the Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But joining the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria by 2016 now seemed unlikely. A representative from the Netherlands had visited after the flood and said the zoo would not meet international standards; membership would be delayed. (A spokesperson for the zoo disputed this, saying they had a “good chance” to be accepted “in the nearest future.”)

Gurielidze’s feelings for the zoo echoed the broader ones all Georgians have for their country: after every episode of misfortune, a wry hope for the best. But both the zoo, and Georgia, continue to seek admission into clubs that they can’t seem to join, their future subject to the whims of nature, squabbling domestic political parties, and larger geopolitical powers.

For years, Georgians had firmly declared their intentions to join the EU, to little concrete result. The country signed a European Association Agreement in 2014, but many Georgians have given up hope of actually joining the EU, acutely aware of the pressure Russia can exert on European governments. Georgia is still waiting on a NATO Membership Action Plan that seems further away than ever, given the ongoing instability in Ukraine. “It’s the decision of 28 countries [in the EU] and whether they will give Russia a veto right or not on their decisions,” Georgia’s Minister of Defense Tinatin Khidasheli told me. “If Georgia is going to get it or not, it does not depend on us that much anymore.”

There have been a number of improvements under Georgian Dream. The media environment is freer, the torture of prisoners has stopped, and at times the government even reacts to public pressure, as it did in Gurielidze’s case. But many here believe this is not a result of the benevolence of those in power so much as proof of their inability to impose their will. Parliamentary elections are coming in 2016, and Georgian Dream is hemorrhaging support; but UNM seems no more popular.

If one good thing emerged from the flood, it was the surge of self-organized volunteerism and civic responsibility. People couldn’t rely on the government to rescue them during the crisis, so they helped each other. Many Georgians spoke of a possible political awakening led by those who joined the rescue efforts and protested Gurielidze’s detention.

“Street protests have always been there,” said Sergi Kapanadze, dean of the School of Governance at Caucasus University in Tbilisi. “What is new is that people without any prior organization went out to do community work. That has never been the case here.”

Gurielidze took me for a walk through what was left of the zoo. The earth was parched from a heat wave, and the remaining animals were hiding from the sun. Along the way, he called each animal by name. We stopped at the enclosure for the endangered Caucasian red deer. The doe, Layla, was pregnant during the flood. A week later, she gave birth. Gurielidze named the fawn Phyrra, one of the two survivors of the mythical flood ordered by Zeus.

At the white rhino enclosure, Gurielidze scrambled onto the wall and reached down to pet Manuela, who came when called. “She likes to be scratched, especially on the ear,” he told me, smiling. We walked over to Beggi’s enclosure, and Gurielidze offered to bring me inside. Crouching next to the small pool that used to belong to the elephants, Gurielidze called the animal’s name. Beggi rose, eyes first, and drifted toward us. Gurielidze beckoned me forward as he touched his snout. But Beggi had other plans. He turned around, and we had to get up quickly. Hippos are dangerous from the back: They spray feces. Undeterred, Gurielidze called again, and Beggi returned.

His snout was cool and slimy to the touch. I petted him for a few seconds, and then he moved away, wiggling his ears as if in farewell. “We want to find a female hippo for him, when we find a new enclosure,” Gurielidze said and led me toward the elephants.