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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

130 Years of History at the City Zoo

You've probably heard about the trophy art taken from Germany at the end of World War II. But what about the trophy animals at the Moscow Zoo?


Among the treasures that found their way from Germany to Moscow in 1944 were a Mississippi alligator named Saturn and a dark tiger python called Hitler. The 53-year-old alligator, still thriving, is the zoo's most senior citizen. Hitler passed away years ago.


Such was some of the trivia offered by workers in the zoo's education department on Friday, the 130th anniversary of Russia's oldest zoo. "The phone has been ringing like crazy," said Olga Nisterenko, who can recite a history of the zoo faster than a chattering chimpanzee. "Everyone wants to write about the anniversary."


The 130th anniversary may not seem worth going ape over, but such milestones are observed diligently in Russia. And this year, at least, the zoo has some good news to report. A major renovation of the zoo's old territory is under way, a walkway has been constructed over the street that divides the old territory from the new territory (built in 1926) and the zoo was recently given 100 square hectares of land outside Moscow for a new breeding and exposition center. There's also talk of building a new zoo in the Moscow suburb of Solntsevo.


The progress -- a dramatic change from a few years ago -- is credited to one of the zoo's biggest fans, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.


"It's the first time the city government is paying attention to our zoo, helping us with finances and renovations," said Natalya Rubinshtein, director of the zoo's education department. "He likes animals and visits often. He understands that a major city like Moscow should have a good zoo, that it's part of the face of the city."


Overcrowded and with several pavilions closed for repairs, the zoo's somewhat shabby appearance belies the years of scientific research, particularly the breeding of rare animals, that has been conducted there since its founding in 1864 by the Russian Imperial Society for the Acclimatization of Animals and Plants.


Though research was always a primary purpose of the zoo, its support came from several directions. When it opened, the tsar himself contributed an elephant that had been given to him by the Emir of Bukhara. And the prerevolutionary bird pavilion was the private aviary of a Russian countess. When she donated the building and its inhabitants to the zoo, she moved in with them, sleeping in a small room in the back and visiting her birds daily until she died.


With 263 different breeds of birds and more than 1,300 individual birds, the zoo's ornithological collection, along with its poisonous snake collection, is among the zoo's most prized possessions. In all, the zoo has more than 700 different kinds of animals, although at present, because of renovations, its lion, a jaguar and a panther are being temporarily housed at other zoos.


The Moscow Zoo also has dark spots in its history. In fact, for one group of animal lovers, infatuation with the zoo led to serious trouble. In 1935, 12 teenaged members of the zoo's amateur zoologists club were arrested for being "apolitical" -- for finding cockatoos more interesting than Komsomol meetings. It may seems absurd, but the outcome was nothing of the sort -- the 12 were sent to labor camps, where seven of them would perish. One of the survivors went on ultimately to become a respected zoologist at Moscow State University.