The Leningrad Zoo During the Blockade

Published: June 24, 2018

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.

В.К. Буряк и слониха Бэтти. 1932 год.
V.K. Buryak and Betty the elephant, 1932.
How was it possible to save more than one hundred and sixty animals and birds in a city where the streets were constantly being shelled by enemy missiles, where the electricity was completely shut down, where the water mains were disconnected, where the sewage system was shut off, and where there was nothing to live off of for survival?

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.

Вход в зоосад. Почтовая карточка. 1920 годы.
Entrance to the zoo. Post card, 1920.
When the war started, about sixty zoo employees were in Belarus, having been brought to the city of Vitebsk to set up an exhibition for the local children. However, the plan was ruined by the unexpected beginning of the war. While escaping from the bombardment, the employees tried to save as many animals there as they could.


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.

Бегемот Красавица. 1935 год
Beauty the hippopotamus, 1935.
Leningrad was surrounded by the Nazis in the beginning of September 1941. At that time, bison, deer, Betty the elephant, Beauty the hippopotamus, a trained bear, foxes, a tiger, a seal, two donkeys, monkeys, ostriches, a black vulture, and many smaller animals remained at the zoo. It was not easy for them during the bombardment.
Руины слоновника
Ruins from the elephant refuge.

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.

Погибшая Бетти. 10 сентября 1941 года.
Deceased Betty, 10 September 1941.
The trained bear and the foxes also died that terrible night. The walls of the monkey cage were destroyed, and because of this the primates scattered throughout the district. In the morning, shaking from fear, the caretakers gathered the primates from all around the city. The bison fell into a shell crater. Nobody had the strength to pull the bison out, so they built a ramp and tried to lure the bison out with pieces of hay by spreading it from the bottom to the edge of the pit.
Руины слоновника. 1941 год.
Ruins from the elephant refuge, 1941.
Another night, a goat and a couple of deer were wounded. An employee named Konovalova bandaged the animals, shared her own bread with them, and put them back on their feet. However, the poor fellow died during another shelling, which also took the lives of tigers and large buffalo.
Места попаданий бомб. 1941 год.
Map of bomb strikes, 1941.

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.

Е.И. Дашина у бегемота Красавица. 1943 год
Y.I. Dashina with Beauty the hippo, 1943.

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!”

Группа верблюдов на фоне американских гор. 1936 год.
A group of camels with view of the American hills, 1936.

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.

Черный гриф Верочка. 1946 год.
Verochka the black vulture, 1946.

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.

Антилопа Нильгау Маяк. 1946 год.
Mayak the Nilgai Antelope, 1946.
For the birds of prey, the employees added fish to the mixture. The vultures agreed to eat soaked salted fish. The most difficult to feed was the golden eagle, for which people had to catch rats.

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.

Площадка молодняка. 30-е годы.
The area of baby animals, 1930s.
In November 1941, a hamadryas baboon named Elzi gave birth to a baby boy in the zoo. However, the mother could not produce milk, but thanks to the local maternity hospital that supplied donor milk daily, the baby hamadryas was able to live.

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.

Коллектив Лензоосада. Весна 1945 года.
The employees of the Leningrad Zoo, spring 1945.
Many of the employees slept at the zoo, not wanting to leave their posts for a moment. They were only few of them, about two dozen caretakers, but it was enough to save many lives. Sixteen employees were awarded the medal For the Defense of Leningrad. Later, when Leningrad changed its name to St. Petersburg after the fall of the USSR, it was later decided not to change the name of the Leningrad Zoo in order to preserve the memory of the heroism of the “staff of the Blockade.”

 A big thank you to the administration of the Leningrad Zoo for the photographs.

About the author

Lindsey Greytak

Lindsey Greytak is a Russian language major at the University of Montana. She also works as a part-time translator for the Montana State Prison and will be serving as an SRAS Home and Abroad Scholar focusing on translation for the fall semester of 2018. Her future ambitions include a career in translation, continuing to live abroad, and traveling as much as possible. She has previously traveled to Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia.

View all posts by: Lindsey Greytak

Museum Studies Abroad