Zoo Animals Roam Streets In Tbilisi, Georgia, After Deadly Floods
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
There was chaos in the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia, this weekend. At least 12 people were killed when floodwaters raced through the city. The waters have now receded, but residents have been told to remain indoors. That's because animals, including bears, tigers and wolves, from the city zoo escaped when their enclosures were destroyed. A hippo was subdued and recaptured, but many other animals have been shot and killed. And the search is still on for other animals on the loose. When we reached reporter Lawrence Sheets in Tbilisi, he told us the flood caught the city by surprise.
LAWRENCE SHEETS, BYLINE: It was a flash flood, which is extremely unusual because from June to August we have almost no rainfall. And what happened was that there was an incredible amount of rain in a short period of time. And the most central part of the city is at 1,200 feet above sea level, and the zoo is located right in that center, and, of course, you had lions, tigers, bears, a hyena. The bears were recaptured. As far as the lions and the tigers and other animals, including one hyena, there are no reports these animals have been found.
BLOCK: I've seen some horrible images, Lawrence, of animals that were killed at the zoo in the flood itself - bears, tigers, lions. And, of course, the human toll is extreme. Was there any warning? Were people able at all to get to higher ground?
SHEETS: No. There's no warning about this type of thing in Georgia. It's just something that's never happened before. There is no emergency sort of signaling system, and even if there was, it would've been difficult. So it's extremely strange.
BLOCK: And a number of the animals that did escape have been shot and killed, even though the zoo director has been asking - begging - people not to kill them.
SHEETS: Well, you have to understand the mindset. I mean, if you're seeing a wild tiger or a lion on the loose in a city of 1.5 million people, which is Tbilisi, so it's the size of Baltimore or, let's say, twice the size of Detroit. It's very difficult to ask people not to take care of themselves. There's no real protocol.
BLOCK: What is the cleanup operation like now?
SHEETS: Cleanup operation consists of both police and volunteer workers, who have gone down into that section of the city. I myself took a drive today. And the very center of the city, where the zoo is located, which is next to the main TV tower - and the effort is aided by helicopters, which have been flying all over the city and looking for animals.
BLOCK: Have people been obeying the order to stay indoors while this is all going on?
SHEETS: Well, you have to remember that Georgia is a country which is basically at war with Russia. There's no diplomatic relations with Russia. There are two separatist conflicts going on, if you want to call them that. They've been going on for 20 years. People are phased by nothing in this country. Yes, they will stay at home, but only to a degree because it's very hard to shock people in this country.
BLOCK: And today is, I think, a day of mourning there in Georgia.
SHEETS: Indeed it is. Indeed it is because this is a tragedy and many people have died, including zookeepers, people who loved animals, and it's a difficult situation. Having said that, people are very stoic in this country, and they're going about their business. And that's just the way it is.
BLOCK: Lawrence Sheets is a reporter based in Tbilisi in the country of Georgia. Lawrence, thanks for talking with us.
SHEETS: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.