Lost in Tbilisi.

Photographer: Beso Gulashvili/AFP/Getty Images

The Dead Lion of Tbilisi

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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A crocodile swimming down a city street. A bear hugging an air conditioner outside a second-floor apartment window. A hippo loitering outside a Swatch store. Penguins drowned. And a young white lion dead from a police bullet to the head. Those are images from Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, where flash floods last weekend killed 12 people and devastated the local zoo.

The elements will sometimes do worse things to a city. One has to wonder, though, what the lion, the penguins and the apes (all among the 300 zoo animals that perished in the floods) were doing in cages and fenced-off enclosures in a narrow valley in the middle of a city -- as defenseless in the flood as prison inmates would have been.

Zoos these days say their goals are conservation and biological research, but they are really the same inhumane menageries that existed 100 and 200 years ago. The Tbilisi tragedy should make governments reconsider the rules for keeping wild animals in captivity.

The Tbilisi Zoo was set up in 1927 in the valley of the Vere River, which flows through the Georgian capital. After the weekend's floods, Georgia's spiritual leader, Patriarch Ilia II, blamed the Communists for the disaster, saying the zoo had been financed with money from the sale of melted-down church bells. "The zoo must be closed and a new one built in a different place because this one is built on sin," Ilia II said.

More likely, the problem was that the zoo was just too close to the river. In the last years of former President Mikheil Saakashvili's reformist administration, there was talk of relocating the zoo to a safer place. A new road had been built in the valley, and traffic noise and exhaust made conditions even worse for the animals, already living in cages and enclosures too small to allow the big cats or wolves enough exercise. Then Saakashvili's party lost an election in 2012 to a bloc led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and most infrastructure investment in Tbilisi stopped.

Ivanishvili himself keeps a menagerie in his native village of Chorvila. He is especially fond of his penguins. I was told an apocryphal story about them in Tbilisi. Apparently, one of the penguins choked on a swallow. "What was the swallow doing down the penguin's gullet?" Ivanishvili supposedly yelled at his menagerie keeper. "The real question is what the penguin was doing in Chorvila," the man replied.

That question applies to Tbilisi and, in fact, to any big city that has a zoo full of exotic animals.

Zoo defenders say the establishments have evolved into important science and conservation centers. "The work that organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society -- headquartered at the Bronx Zoo -- do is invaluable in the fight against species decline and extinction," John Scott of Fordham University wrote in a 2012 paper. "Therefore the modern zoo serves as a vessel both for the conservation of the animal kingdom, but also to inspire and foster a new generation committed to the preservation of all species."

The Tbilisi Zoo, too, lists conservation as its No. 1 purpose, and recreation only as an afterthought. Still, zoos are primarily financed by the sale of tickets and concessions, and conservation doesn't require that animals be removed from their natural habitats and locked up. The penguins that died in the Tbilisi flood were of a rare African variety teetering on the edge of extinction. Why couldn't conservationists take care of them in South Africa, where they can be reintroduced into the wild without traveling 7,600 miles? 

The Tbilisi Zoo initially housed mainly local species, and its researchers did a lot of hybridization work aimed at breeding. For example, they tried but failed to produce a cross between a peacock and a turkey. This kind of thing may sound funny, but it actually makes some sense. In contrast, keeping a lion in a cage half a world away from where wild lions roam does nothing for conservation. Theoretically, it could serve a legitimate educational goal, but it didn't in Tbilisi: The police who simply shot many of the animals that escaped during the flood seemed to know nothing of their expected behavior toward humans. That's how Shumba, a white lion that was a favorite with the local kids, died. "I know for sure there were no orders to kill," Zurab Gurielidze, the zoo's director, said. "It's just that someone could have exceeded his authority."

In the debate over the modern zoo's split personality, there's plenty for professionals to argue about. Given that they never have enough funding for their research, the loss of revenue from zoos could hardly be welcome. What's more, companies that run zoos will fight tooth and claw against their closure, as a firm called the Pro Zoo Foundation did in Costa Rica. Last year, Pro Zoo prevailed, winning the right to manage the country's two zoos for another 10 years.

Despite this opposition, the world should move away from the zoo industry's inhumane legacy. Travel is getting cheaper and easier, and documentaries can easily show kids lions that aren't locked in cages. Scientists would hardly argue against setting up government-funded research bases near the animals' habitats as an alternative to big-city zoos. What happened in Tbilisi shouldn't be written off as just another natural disaster: For the animals that died, there was nothing natural about it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net