The following history has appeared in various forms around the Russian internet. It has been presented here, translated for the first time into English, by SRAS Home and Abroad Scholar Lindsey Greytak.
The Leningrad Blockade is one of the worst chapters in the city’s history. The severe winter of 1941-1942 finished what was started by the forces of a ruthless enemy. This period was difficult for everyone, many died of cold and starvation, it seemed that help was nowhere. But, even during that time there were people who did not pity themselves and tried to save the unlucky animals of the Leningrad Zoo.
Of course, from the very beginning of the siege the employees of the zoo tried to save the unique animals. Eighty animals were urgently evacuated to Kazan. Among them were black panthers, tigers, polar bears, a tapir, and a massive rhinoceros. However, it was not possible to evacuate all the animals.
Among the animals was an American crocodile. Unfortunately, they could not take the crocodile due to specific conditions needed to transport him. Someone suggested that the crocodile be released in the Zapadnaya Dvina River. This idea was supported by many, and the reptile was set free. No one has ever found out what happened to the crocodile and his fate remains unknown.
In Leningrad, during the beginning of the bombardment, the people were forced to shoot the remaining large predators. Of course, it was a shame to kill the innocent animals, however, letting them roam free to hunt, due to the destruction of the cages from the missiles, was dangerous for the inhabitants.
Many animals ran about their cages in horror, the bear cubs shrieked with fear, and the birds took refuge in the corner of the aviary. But the chamois (a species of goat-antelope native to Eurasia), for some reason, climbed to the top of a hill, stood there, and waited until the end of the missile strike. The elephant Betty, barely heard the sounds of the sirens in time, and hastily returned to her home. She had no other refuge to go to. Unfortunately, on September 8th one of three explosive devices dropped by German bombers exploded right next door to her, hitting a guard and fatally injuring Betty. The poor thing took fifteen minutes to finally pass away in the ruins of her elephant refuge. Betty’s funeral was held in the zoo.
It wasn’t easy for Beauty the hippopotamus either. She was brought to the zoo together with Betty in 1911. She was more fortunate than her friend. Beauty survived the siege and lived a long and happy life. However, if it was not for the selflessness of Yevdokia Dashina, this miracle would not have happened. The skin of a hippopotamus must constantly soak in water, otherwise it will quickly dry out and bloody cracks will cover the body. In the winter of 1942 the city’s waterpipes stopped working and the pool for Beauty stood empty.
What to do? Each day Yevdokia Ivanovna brought a 40-kilo barrel of water on a sled taken from the Neva River. She warmed the water and poured it on the poor hippopotamus. She slathered the cracks in the hippo’s skin with camphor oil – using up to a kilogram per day. Beauty’s skin was quickly healed, and she was able to live with dignity during the time of the bombardment. She lived until 1951 and died from old age. She never inherited any chronic diseases, her last veterinarians said with admiration, “Here she is! The fortitude of the blockade!”
It is to be understood that during this time the zoo was not funded, the survival of the animals was completely dependent on the employees. In the first months of the war they piled corpses of horses killed by the missiles in the field, and while risking their lives they gathered vegetables. When that opportunity was lost, people cut what was left of the grass anywhere they could while gathering mountain ash berries and acorns. By spring all the available land was turned into vegetable gardens, where they grew cabbage, potatoes, oats, and turnips.
But this can only save the vegetarian animals – so what about the rest? Although the bear unhappily ate his diet of minced vegetables and herbs, the tigers and vultures refused the meals. For them, rabbit carcasses were found and stuffed with a mixture of grass, press cake (the remains of the plant after liquid extraction), cabbage leaves, and then coated with fish oil. The employees managed not to let any of the predators die of hunger.
It’s well known that an adult hippopotamus should consume 36 to 40 kilograms of feed per day. It should be understood, that during the blockade no such feast was possible. Beauty was given 4-6 kilograms of grass mixture, vegetables, and press cake. To this, 30 kilograms of steamed sawdust were added in order to fill her belly.
Surprisingly, the Leningrad Zoo closed only during the winter of 1941-1942. By spring the overworked employees cleared the paths and repaired the aviaries in order to reopen the zoo by summer. During that summer over 7,400 Leningraders came to see the over 162 animals exhibited at the zoo. This proved to be a much-needed peaceful refuge for residents during those terrible years.
A big thank you to the administration of the Leningrad Zoo for the photographs.