The hippopotamus in Leningrad zoo survived the German siege of the city in the Second World War because keepers persuaded him to eat dubious porridge mainly made from sawdust.
Now the 165-year-old zoo, in the Alexander Garden near the Peter and Paul Fortress in the city centre, is under threat again –allegedly because local developers, helped by the governor’s office, want to turn it into a leisure centre.
The battle over St Petersburg zoo involves President Vladimir Putin and Alexander Yakovlev, the city governor. The zoo has had six directors in 10 months, including a woman who lasted three days and a mysterious military officer who refused to tell anybody his rank. For a city trying to clean up its act in time for its 300th anniversary next year, it has not looked good.
The feud first came to public notice when Irena Yakovleva, the governor’s wife, sacked Dr Ivan Korneyev, the zoo’s director for 11 years. Her husband, a powerful politician, had set up a foundation called Zoosad to make plans for the future of the zoo, which is owned by the city.
These plans envisaged moving the zoo to an outer suburb of St Petersburg, where it would be filled with herds of wild animals at a cost of nearly $1 billion. Since no money was allocated, Dr Korneyev believed the real purpose was to use the zoo site to build hotels. He said: “The aim was to convert the Alexander Garden, or at least the zoo part of it, into a leisure centre. The animals’ problems were the last thing they ever thought of.”
Dr Korneyev’s attacks drew so much attention that the plan was dropped. But he had become an enemy of the governor’s wife. Mr Putin sympathises but the city owns the zoo. “If the authorities decide to close the zoo tomorrow, nobody can stop them,” said Dr Korneyev, adding that only the mayor’s resignationwould save the zoo.
Nikolai Konotovsky, an official in the governor’s office, claims the position is not so bad and “everything is OK with the animals”. But Valentina Shurganova, its deputy director, who has spent 19 years at the zoo, is gloomy. “The situation was never as bad as it is now,” she says. “We cannot understand what will become of us.”