Dirty Politics at the Yerevan Zoo
by Kirk Wallace
Something smells at the Yerevan Zoo, and it is not the animals. Nor is it the people whose jobs are to protect, nurture and oversee the proper functioning of the zoo. Rather this odor emanates from those who would see the zoo return to a time when the welfare of the animals was not the primary consideration of its keepers.
When I arrived in Armenia in the spring of 2011 the Yerevan Zoo was just beginning an important transition period. The zoo was in an abysmal state with starving and sick animals existing in inhumane conditions. In response to these conditions the directorship of the zoo had just been given to Ruben Khachatryan (Founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets/FPWC). Starting from scratch, and with extremely limited resources, Ruben and his staff began the process of rehabilitating the zoo and bringing it in line with international standards.For the last two years the new zoo management has been in constant contact with international experts and has brought significant and positive changes to the zoo. They have improved the conditions of the enclosures and diets of the animals as well as attended to the physical and mental needs of the animals. In short, Ruben and his team are on the way to creating a zoo that Armenia can be proud of and which serves the purpose of all quality zoos, that of public environmental education and animal conservation. They have attracted international donations and expertise and re-introduced science back into the process of running a zoo.
The new management introduced boomer balls, such as this one pictured with a brown bear, and other enrichment tools into many of the animal exhibits. Credit: Yerevan Zoo.
So what is the problem then? It seems that Mr. Khachatryan has been under extreme pressure from many parties for his perceived mismanagement, including people who work for Yerevan Municipality, which is the actual “owner” of the zoo. Apparently these are individuals that are not happy with his stewardship and want new directors. They point to the recent death of a lion, at the jaws of another lion, as proof of his mismanagement. They point to other “problems” as well that supposedly occur there on a continuing basis.So how best to address these allegations?
I think the best method is simply to translate them from Orwellian “Truth Speak” to English. The “Truth Speak” version goes “Mr. Khachatryan is mismanaging the zoo. Deaths of animals are common and the animals are in danger. Thus we need a new Director.”
The English translation is, “Mr. Khachatryan has stopped opportunities to accrue personal profits from the zoo. He has put an end to the illegal breeding and sale of animals. He has put an end to the destruction of Armenian wildlife by refusing to buy plundered nestlings, eggs and other animal species. He has put an end to paying fees for local ‘consultants’ and instead is consulting with respected international experts. He wants to create an actual zoological park as opposed to a cash machine for a few individuals. And most importantly, he wants to put the welfare of the animals above all else.”
I sat in on a recent Board meeting at the zoo. In attendance were scientists of the highest repute here in Armenia. Each and every scientist showed support for the work of the current zoo management and denounced the ridiculous allegations against Mr. Khachatryan. They discussed the ongoing concerns affecting any zoo; those of proper care, nutrition and nurturing of the animals. At the root of all discussions was the need to use ‘science’ as their guide. Absent from the discussions were concerns about profit, personal aggrandizement and opportunism.
The mayor of Yerevan must decide next what to do with the zoo. And the mayor has to decide if the municipality is ready to back up the institution’s director and his reform efforts or if the city will listen to those individuals spreading false allegations driven by their personal interests. If Mr. Khachatryan has to leave his post we will surely witness a regression back to the dark days of malnutrition and horrifying conditions for the animals. I am not a fan of zoos, as a rule, but if Armenia is to keep the Yerevan Zoo, the current zoo management is the best choice to manage the facility. Mr. Khachatryan and his staff have done as good a job as can be expected under the circumstances. I will also tell you that it would be more humane to put a bullet in the brain of every animal in the zoo than let the zoo revert to the horror that it was. The mayor should allow science and humanity to rule the day. And we, the people, should demand it.
For more information visit: http://www.yerevanzoo.am