KHARKIV, Ukraine - Two zoo workers in Ukraine who stayed behind at the facility to help care for the animals — despite Russia’s military assault on the area — have been found dead.
Feldman EcoPark, located near the city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, has suffered serious damage to cages and other animal enclosures as a result of Russian shelling following the invasion on Feb. 24. The destruction also forced the few remaining staff to issue desperate pleas for volunteers to help evacuate large predators, such as lions, tigers and bears, out of the facility.
The two employees had been missing since early March, zoo officials said in an update shared on April 19. Their bodies were just found with bullet wounds, barricaded in a room on the premises.
"When the war started, they stayed in the Ecopark and helped to feed the animals. We arrived at the Ecopark on March 7 and did not find them there," the zoo’s update reads, according to an English translation.
Zoo officials said they had searched for the missing employees "for a long time," and even enlisted the help of area law enforcement officers.
"Until the last, we had been hoping that nothing irremediable had happened, and they were able to survive. But yesterday we received confirmation that their bodies had been found," the update added. "Our guys were shot by the enemies, and their bodies had been barricaded in the back room."
The zoo called the two employees "wonderful and courageous people," offering condolences to their families and friends.
"We believe that inhumans who have committed this will definitely be punished," the statement concluded.
Screengrabs from a video posted by Feldman Ecopark on April 8, 2022, show damaged infrastructure inside the park. Credit: Feldman Ecopark via Storyful
Feldman EcoPark made headlines earlier this month when it warned how it could be forced to euthanize some larger animals, such as tigers and lions, if it failed to relocate them. The zoo called this "an extreme measure, which, we very much hope, will not come to," alongside a video showing destruction at the zoo.
Fearing ongoing Russian bombing and damaged enclosures that could allow dangerous animals to escape into the nearby region, workers and volunteers have been actively working to evacuate all the zoo’s animal residents and are seeking donations as part of the effort.
An evacuated white lion is seen at the enclosure at the Zoo in Odesa, Ukraine, on April 14, 2022. Two white lions arrived at the Odesa Zoo on the night of 13 April from the Ecopark destroyed by shelling in Kharkiv. (Photo by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Im
The Ecopark facility continued updates on Wednesday, sharing a video of workers helping to evacuate hyenas, wolves and other animals from the zoo.
"A drone flying over the territory of the Ecopark means danger. That is often followed by shelling. Russian troops are constantly monitoring the territory," the zoo wrote. "It seems that they should understand that the evacuation of wolves is a purely peaceful process. But our rescuers have learned on several occasions that their logic (if it exists, of course) is completely different."
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is less than 30 miles south of the Russian border and has come under severe attack as Russia’s military continues its assault on cities and towns in the eastern part of the country, in what officials have described as a "new phase of war." Associated Press journalists reported this week that at least four people were killed and three wounded in an attack on a residential area of the city.
If successful, the Russian offensive in what is known as the Donbas would essentially slice Ukraine in two and give President Vladimir Putin a badly needed victory following the failed attempt by Moscow’s forces to storm the capital, Kyiv, and heavier-than-expected casualties nearly two months into the war.
Russia also said Wednesday that it struck areas around Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro west of the Donbas with missiles. Multiple explosions were heard early Wednesday in the southern city of Mykolaiv, the regional governor said. A hospital was reported shelled earlier in the nearby town of Bashtanka.
In Mariupol, the now-devastated port city in the Donbas, Ukrainian troops said the Russian military dropped heavy bombs to flatten what was left of a sprawling steel plant and hit a hospital where hundreds were staying.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.