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Zoo Animals Roam Flooded Georgian Capital

  • VOA News

Residents of the flood-ravaged Georgian capital city of Tbilisi were warned Sunday to stay indoors, as lions, bears, a hippopotamus and other escaped zoo animals roamed the streets of the devastated capital.

Tbilisi Mayor David Narmania, speaking on national television, said the flood waters had killed at least 12 people, with 24 others missing.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Narmania as saying "not all animals that fled the zoo have been caught yet. Therefore, I would ask the population to avoid moving around the city."

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili toured the affected area, saying "the losses we have suffered are very hard to tolerate. The situation is rather difficult," he said. "We haven't seen anything like this in Tbilisi before."

He then declared Monday a day of national mourning.

Animal deaths widespread

Zoo director Zurab Gurielidze, speaking on Georgian television Sunday, said "all our lions and tigers are dead. We also failed to save our monkeys. They all drowned, unable to escape their cages."

Another official said an unknown number of jackals, jaguars and wolves were among the escapees from a large section of the zoo described by officials on Sunday as "non-existent." Witnesses said some animals were killed when they could not be captured.

Photos later in the day showed the displaced hippo shoulder-deep in a flooded city street, in front of a store moments before authorities subdued it with a tranquilizer gun and returned it to its enclosure.

Local reports also showed a bear clinging to an air conditioning unit on a structure near the rushing flood waters. Other images showed the corpses of animals strewn among wrecked cars and damaged buildings.

A central city devastated

The mayor's office said dozens of families lost homes, with thousands more in the city of 1.1 million residents left without water or electricity.

Video showed partially submerged cars, washed out roadways and flood waters from the Vere river coursing through the center of the hilly city. The river burst its banks overnight into Sunday, after a full day of torrential downpours.

The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, described the human and animal losses as "a terrible tragedy." In his Sunday sermon, he blamed the floods on Cold War-era communists, who he said built the zoo with money gained from destroying churches and monasteries and then melting down their bells.

As a consequence, he said the zoo can't flourish at its present location and must find a new home.