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Russian zookeeper kidnaps animals from Kherson, Ukraine says

Nov. 13, 2022 Updated Sun., Nov. 13, 2022 at 9:41 p.m.

An old woman walks in the Kherson region village of Arkhanhelske on Nov. 3, which was formerly occupied by Russian forces.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
An old woman walks in the Kherson region village of Arkhanhelske on Nov. 3, which was formerly occupied by Russian forces. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Robyn Dixon Washington Post

Russia’s military has gained a reputation for looting its way across Ukraine, taking washing machines, electronics, cultural artifacts and even the bones of the lover of Empress Catherine II. But the latest theft – including seven raccoons, two female wolves, peacocks, a llama and a donkey from Kherson Zoo – entered the realm of farce.

A private Crimean zoo, Taigan Lion Park, owned by Oleg Zubkov, filmed him inexpertly grabbing raccoons by their tails and dumping them into cages in a YouTube video headlined “We are in Kherson. Oleg Zubkov catches raccoons with BARE HANDS!!!”

The video, which was made unavailable Sunday, showed him with two assistants, manhandling the llama into a dilapidated, windowless van as a dog yapped nearby. Another video uploaded Sunday showed two wolves that he said were from Kherson Zoo being unloaded at the Crimean zoo as two Russian television channels filmed the event. He called it “temporary evacuation.”

“It will be much better for the wolves here: large territory, Crimean sun, and besides, after the quarantine, they will get a male,” Zubkov said. “It’s been their dream to live here,” he claimed in comments to Russian media on YouTube.

He said the animals, including any wolf cubs, would be sent back after Russia reoccupies Kherson.

“For us this is a humanitarian mission. These animals do not have any zoological value for us. We have our own wolves. We have 75 raccoons. We could make canned raccoon meat,” he said before guffawing, in what appeared to be an awkward joke. “Sorry. But seriously we have a lot of raccoons, but we took these animals to keep them alive and so that residents of Kherson would be happy to see them alive again. The animals are in good hands.”

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry posted one of the videos and warned of reprisal for the raccoon theft.

Ukrainian troops retook the strategic southern city last week after a Russian retreat. Kherson was one of the first major cities to fall to the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion that began in February. The move was greeted with celebration in the streets after months of Russian occupation.

The removal of the animals was widely reported in Russian media, portrayed as a small bright spot in an otherwise gloomy picture. It came to light when nationalist Russian poet and blogger Anna Dolgareva boasted on Telegram that the “only good news” about Moscow’s surrender of Kherson was that her friend managed to “steal a raccoon” from Kherson Zoo.

“We will not return the raccoon,” Dolgareva said. “We will get back Kherson.”

She said a raccoon Telegram channel, Raccoon from Kherson, had been set up.

Ukrainian animal activist Oleksander Todorchuk confirmed the report on Facebook.

Last month, Russia’s designated administration leader in Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, said that Russia had taken the bones of Grigory Potemkin from his tomb in Kherson. Potemkin, an 18th century Russian military figure, annexed Crimea, founded the city, governed Russia’s imperial lands in the region and created the Black Sea Fleet. He was also renowned as the lover and close protege of Empress Catherine II, who was known as Catherine the Great.

Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of removing disabled children from Kherson to Crimea and Russia, as well as taking away prisoners of war. Local independent media channels aired video of buses, fire engines, construction equipment and even a miniature train and with its carriages for children – all being driven out of Kherson in the days before Moscow surrendered the city.

Kherson’s Kremlin-appointed administration also removed hundreds of valuable artworks and icons from the Kherson Art Museum, emptying the gallery from Oct 31. to Nov. 3, and taking the works, wrapped in rags and packed in unmarked vans, to Crimea before the Russian surrender of Kherson, according to museum staff in a Facebook post on Nov. 4.

“They call it ‘evacuation.’ In our language it’s ‘looting,’ ” the post said. The works later showed up in the Central Museum of Tavrida in the Crimean city of Simferopol. Kherson police announced a criminal investigation into the theft of the works, though they are focused on stabilizing the recently retaken city.

Police also reported that Russian forces had stolen four official cars of a medical center, hospital computer equipment, medicines, civilians’ cars, boats and hunting weapons.

Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of looting or damaging hundreds of Ukrainian cultural institutions during the war.

Russian forces also mined buildings and blew up a television tower, communications towers and bridges in central Kherson, according to Ukrainian officials. Local media reported witnesses said they saw Russians removing building materials, furniture and household appliances from Kherson.

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