Gena the crocodile was left in a trash can. Elza the lion was roaming free in the cargo hold of a plane. As Tonya the bear grew up, the chain she wore dug so tightly into her skin that it started to cut through bone.
Luckily for these wild animals, and some 200 others, they have now found their way to the Veles Center, an out-of-the-way operation regarded as Russia’s premier facility for rehabilitating wild animals that were abandoned or fell victim to human callousness.
Taking care of all of them costs about 10 million rubles ($155,000) a year. The center gets help from volunteers and public donations, but much of the funding comes from Alexander Fyodorov, the St. Petersburg construction company owner who founded the center in 2009.
“It is probably not enough to say that I like wild animals who normally get little help and that a part of my life belongs here,” said Fyodorov. “I also want to do something important in this life.”
The crocodile was simply left in a trash can and found by a street cleaner, he said.
“The cleaner at first thought it was a toy crocodile in good condition, but then the toy crocodile came to life.”
The lion came to the center in a mixture of comedy and pathos after she was flown to St. Petersburg as an unannounced gift from one wealthy businessman to another.
“During the flight, she escaped from the cage and was wandering in the luggage compartment. When the plane landed at Pulkovo airport and personnel started to unload luggage, they found a lion that was attacking people,” said center veterinarian Natalya Bondarenko.
The man for whom Elza was intended asked the center to take charge of her.
She appears to have happily adapted to life at Veles, bounding through the snow in her outdoor enclosure and rolling on her back kittenishly.
The bear, Tonya, spent eight years chained up before she came to Veles.
“There were two chains around her neck that grew into the body; one grew seven centimeters (nearly three inches) inside her neck,” Fyodorov said.
“The bear had several surgeries. The last chain link reached the backbone. We cut a little part of the bone to remove that piece of chain.”
The center aims to release its animals back into the wild, but for many that’s not possible because of environment or because they become dependent on human care and lose their survival skills.
For some of the animals, going back to the wild would mean leaving friends. For instance, a wolf named Vuk, who was found abandoned as a pup, has somehow appointed himself protector of the bears who live in an adjacent enclosure.
“The wolf considers himself a father for the bears, takes care of them, protects them if he feels there is any danger,” the vet Bondarenko said.
Other occupants of the center, 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of St. Petersburg, include foxes, elks, donkeys, storks, peacocks and a group of 11 hedgehogs who bask in the attention of volunteer Yekaterina Gilchyonok, stretching for caresses rather than rolling into protective balls.
Veles, named after a Slavic pagan god of cattle, is an unusual undertaking in Russia, where care for wild animals largely is a “disaster,” says Svetlana Ilyinskaya of the Center for Legal Protection of Animals.
“We are missing centers both for saving animals and for supporting them. There is no state support or policy regarding the matter,” she says.