Tbilisi flood searchers in nervous lookout for zoo animals

AP News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2015 9:57 PM
Tbilisi flood searchers in nervous lookout for zoo animals

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Workers and volunteers labored Monday in a flood-ravaged area of the Georgian capital to help victims while nervously watching for traces of dangerous animals that may have escaped the city zoo when it was inundated by the surging waters. Officials in the ex-Soviet republic said 14 people were confirmed dead.

Ten people were thought to be missing after an intense downpour and high winds on Sunday turned a stream that runs through a section of Tbilisi into a sweeping torrent that destroyed houses, tore up roads and tossed vehicles into heaps of uprooted trees and rubbish.

The devastated zoo was still trying to determine what had happened to four lions, three tigers and one jaguar whose enclosures were flooded, zoo spokeswoman Khatia Basilashvili said.

She said a number of other wild cats — four lions, three tigers and two jaguars — were killed either in the flood or while on the loose, when some were shot by police.

But it was unclear how many more animals would be found dead once the waters receded and the cleanup was completed at the zoo, or how many were still wandering the hills around Tbilisi.

The flooding also killed scores of homeless dogs at a private shelter near the zoo, shelter staff said. Volunteers were working at the shelter on Monday to care for the remaining dogs and repair the kennels. They said about 150 of the approximately 500 dogs at the shelter had been saved.

"We dragged them out of their cages, but they tried to go back into the cages because those are their homes," said Nati Mzhavia, one of those who came to the shelter to help the frightened dogs.

The heavy rain that began shortly before midnight Saturday caused a landslide that blocked what is normally a pleasant stream in the hilly city, but as the floodwaters grew in strength, the fierce torrent broke through. The homes of about 40 families were destroyed.

Up to 24 people were reported missing late Sunday. By Monday afternoon, all but 10 of them had been found, Georgian authorities said.

The government declared Monday a day off from work and school while the search for the missing and the cleanup work went ahead in Tbilisi, a city of 1.1 million people. The government has urged residents to avoid going near the zoo.

Prague Zoo, which suffered from the devastating flooding that hit the Czech capital in 2002 and again in 2013, was sending a team to Tbilisi on Monday.

"When we learned about the situation in Tbilisi Zoo, we started to work out how to help," Prague Zoo director Miroslav Bobek said. "Based on our experience with the floods, we decided to create a team of curators to travel to Georgia's zoo to help take care of the animals."

None of the people who died were killed by the zoo animals that got loose, Tbilisi Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze said. Three zoo employees were among those who drowned.

One of the potentially most dangerous animals to escape, a hippopotamus, was tranquilized and returned to the zoo on Sunday.

A young white lion named Shumba, one of the zoo's most beloved attractions, was found shot in the head on zoo territory on Sunday, the zoo director said.

He demanded an investigation into the shootings of zoo animals.

"If a predator attacked a person, then it's understandable, but there are cases that need looking into," Gurielidze said.

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Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi and Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic, contributed to this report.