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Macedonia: Skopje Zoo Improvements

Blogger Alek Careca posted a small photo gallery [MKD] from the Skopje Zoo with this comment:

The Skopje Zoo drastically changed its appearance this year, to a great satisfaction of the population from all over Macedonia, but also inciting regular flow of visitors from Kosovo and Serbia.

Renovation of the Zoo was real news to most citizens of Skopje, who generally avoided this decrepit public space in the last few decades for the sake of their own mental health. Widely considered a place where animals suffer torture due to unbearable conditions, the Zoo only appeared in the media after horrendous incidents such as hippo biting off a limb of a visitor in self-defense, killing of a few deer by burglars, аnd frequent animal deaths or injuries due to firecrackers, stones, plastic bags thrown by human beings…

Jaguar in Skopje Zoo, August 2002. Photo: Filip Stojanovski.

Jaguar in Skopje Zoo, August 2002. Photo: Filip Stojanovski.

As documented in this article from 2002, completely contrary to their roaming nature, large carnivores were kept numb in small concrete cells – “lying all day, breaking the habit only to pace nervously from time to time in great speed in front of the iron bars.”

Lions in Skopje Zoo, August 2002. Photo: Filip Stojanovski.

Lions in Skopje Zoo, August 2002. Photo: Filip Stojanovski.

As such, the Skopje Zoo received a lot of bad press over the years, and became world infamous around 2007 when some foreigners took notice of Koko the chimpanzee, and tried to help him. Orphaned in infancy, Koko suffered from severe depression for years. His sad face was also used to illustrate the plight of chimps elsewhere (e.g., a Reuters article about the United States). As a way out of continuous public embarrassment (mostly perpetrated by Vest daily), the authorities allowed Koko's transfer to AAP primate sanctuary in Holland in 2009.

In fact, around that time the Skopje Zoo started re-establishing relations with relevant European associations such as EAZA, which led to the start of renovations and refurbishing, driven by donors and exchange partners. Reforms intensified in 2010, after the appointment of Dane Kuzmanovski as manager.

The Zoo now seems to have more staff, and outsources a private security agency. Visitors who want to feed the animals can purchase animal-friendly produce. A cafe and a pony riding rink have been operational since this past summer. Most of the cages have been renovated, or new habitats built, and dozens of new animals have been imported, including tigers. Sponsored events for kids take place in the Zoo, and space for birthday celebrations can be rented.

Cooperation with educational institutions, environmental NGOs and the media has been established. An example of the latter is the show “Zoo Story,” produced by the bilingual (Albanian-Macedonian) Alsat-M TV.

The Skopje Zoo's Facebook page has over 34,000 fans, frequent updates and a responsive administrator capable of admitting mistakes. Strangely enough, the template of the Zoo's official website has not been updated, and its home page greets its visitors with a stock photo made elsewhere.

As with other public enterprises, critics may also grumble about alleged partisan leanings of business sector partnerships and the HR policy. Some bad things have happened due to circumstances outside of the staff's control, such as the heatwave deaths of two deer and two gnus transported from Zagreb Zoo in August. Both zoos announced [MKD] they would sue the transport company for not allowing a vet to accompany the animals on the 610 km trip.

However, the opposition, which often considers governmental endeavors a facade for money laundering, has been largely silent about the obviously significant investments of public money in the Skopje Zoo. Possibly because the benefits are tangible and verifiable: most of the animals now live in decent-looking enclosures where they can touch ground and plants, with access to open sky. Visitors indeed get more gratifying experiences and spread the word.

Lion in Skopje Zoo, July 2010.

Part of the new lions’ enclosure in the Skopje Zoo, introduced in 2010. Photo: Filip Stojanovski, CC-BY.

Carolin Weinkopf, a German visitor to the Zoo wrote this July:

There [are] various horror stories online about the zoo in Skopje – and we are not zoo-experts, but we couldn’t really understand why. They might have cleaned it and put bigger cages when they heard the Germans are coming… but for us it looked not much different than the zoo in Berlin, really. Zoos are probably never the best thing on earth – anyway – here, almost every species was blessed with a bunch of babies, which must be a good sign, or not?

Update on Koko: a year ago (Dec. 23, 2009), Vest reported [MKD] that “the Dutch refuse to let Koko return” because of the miserable conditions. The latest news [MKD] (Nov. 6, 2010) is that private companies will build a new dwelling for the 14-year-old ape, who is expected back in April 2011.

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