February 02, 2021

The Zoo Animals Who Outlasted the Hermitage Cats


The Zoo Animals Who Outlasted the Hermitage Cats
The polar bear enjoys a rare clear sky in St. Petersburg. Amanda Shirnina

This week, on January 27, St. Petersburg celebrated the 77th anniversary of the lifting of the blockade of Leningrad during World War II. The Leningrad Zoo found a way to save its charges rather than sacrificing them to human hunger during the 872-day ordeal.

About 100 of the zoo's animals survived the war, including some of the largest ones – a tiger named Kitty and a hippopotamus named Beauty. For Beauty, St. Petersburg resident Evdokiya Dashina recalls toting 400 liters of Neva River water every day.

The siege-era menu for zoo animals was often the same as for humans: sawdust, pine cones, acorns, and other found objects, both organic and inorganic. For the animals, zoo staff would grind these objects into kasha to make them more palatable. In the absence of meat, workers convinced Vera the vulture to eat old animal skins stuffed with vegetables.

Zoo residents continued to entertain children in the Animal Theatre – undoubtedly a much-needed distraction from a very unusual childhood – throughout the more-than-two-year-long blockade.

The residents of the Leningrad Zoo fared better than the Hermitage cats, who did not survive the war but whose population was restored later and are today probably the most famous animals in St. Petersburg. An exhibit is currently on at the zoo about "The Zoo During the Siege."

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