The Problem of Privately Owned Zoos and the Animals at the Gyumri Zoo


An article claiming Armenia to be home to “the world’s saddest zoo” appeared in the UK publication the Daily Mail on January 19. The Gyumri Zoo was the subject of the tale. Due to the graphic images and description of the creatures (three lions and two bears), which were starved and left to decay, the piece soon gained popularity.
Sadly, the report omitted to include that people and groups in Armenia were working to save the animals, as well as the larger issue of private zoos in Armenia and the complex legal issues involved.


Stepan Vardanyan, the proprietor of the Gyumri Zoo, declared in October 2015 that he was ill and would no longer be able to take care of the animals. The owner had asked the Yerevan Zoo, the only capable facility in Armenia suited to care for the animals, to take them because there is no animal sanctuary there; nevertheless, his plea was denied. The Yerevan Zoo lacks the space and resources necessary to adequately house these creatures.

In order to garner assistance, animal advocate Silva Adamyan started the “SOS Gyumri Zoo Animals” Facebook group. Since we had collaborated in 2010 to shut down the dolphinarium in Armenia, she called me for assistance.

The Armenian Environmental Network (AEN) was founded in 2010 with the mission of strengthening local Armenian competence and attracting international assistance. In 2011, we stepped up once more to assist the animals at the Gyumri Zoo.

In an effort to find a solution, I turned to my network, which included all of the major international animal rescue organizations. I discovered the Libearty refuge, a wonderful refuge in Romania, and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, a foundation that could provide funding for the bears’ migration. Since they had knowledge of transporting wild animals, I informed the SOS Gyumri Zoo Animals Group and the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC) about this.

We all started getting ready to move the bears (while still trying to figure out how to deal with the lions). Funds for food were supplied by the Brigitte Bardot Foundation (BBF) and a private donor, which zealous volunteers in Gyumri used to buy and transport to the zoo. The mission to save the bears and the lions was supported by people and organizations from Armenia (Yerevan and Gyumri), France, Spain, and Romania.|

Larger Problem

The problem is more extensive and nuanced than the Daily Mail piece suggests. In many privately owned establishments in Armenia (zoos, restaurants, hotels, etc.), wild animals are captured from the wild or reared in captivity and kept in cages as an attraction. More than 60 bears are thought to be kept in captivity in just Armenia alone, according to some estimates. In addition to the unknown numbers of “pet” wild cats and primates in Armenia, cubs are frequently given as presents or sold. For the past few years, news outlets have made a point of highlighting Armenia’s participation in the monkey trade and the keeping of primates on exhibit in Armenian private parks. There are several exotic animal owners in the USA as well, therefore this problem is not limited to Armenia.

Even while the public in Armenia has been aware of the situation at the Gyumri Zoo for years, there is currently no rehabilitation facility or sanctuary in Armenia, the applicable laws are murky, and the enforcement of the rules is very lax, making it incredibly difficult to address the issue.

It’s not that people and groups in Armenia weren’t concerned about the animals in Gyumri or didn’t make an effort to aid before this point. For instance, the problem was brought up by FPWC when they produced a movie about the Gyumri Zoo in 2009, and they have been collaborating with the government on plans to construct a bear sanctuary in Armenia to house bears seized from private institutions.

AEN backed this move by putting up a petition asking the government to put an end to the display of bears in Armenian private facilities and to encourage efforts to place the bears now kept in captivity in suitable homes. Armenian animal rights activists have frequently brought up this topic in the media.

Post-Daily Mail Article Reaction

Numerous people and foreign organizations stepped up to assist because they perceived the situation as “hopeless and urgent” after reading the Daily Mail report, which suggested that no one in Armenia was taking any action to aid the animals. Help was undoubtedly welcomed, but it led to a chaotic frenzy that really endangered the progress we had made.
Not all of our activities were made public, and a lot of work was done “behind the scenes” to preserve the privacy of people concerned and prevent the situation from being overly publicized, which has slowed down similar rescue operations in other nations.

Despite the fact that we were doing all in our power to aid the animals, a lot of worried people from all over the world sent hostile emails and Facebook comments and failed to see how challenging and sensitive the procedure of rescuing and transporting five sizable wild animals is. Sadly, there is no quick solution. If this worldwide pressure had been put on the Armenian government, it would have been far more fruitful. Government intervention is required to close these private facilities and make sure the animals are relocated to suitable facilities, which takes time. As many people are aware, oligarchs with powerful connections are frequently those who buy, trade, sell, and exhibit wild animals.

As a result, obtaining genuine government help is extremely difficult. This problem shouldn’t be thought of as having an easy solution.

‘Despite the fact that we were doing all in our power to aid the animals, many worried people from all over the world wrote hostile emails and Facebook messages and failed to see how challenging and sensitive the process of rescuing and moving five enormous wild animals is. Sadly, there is no quick solution. If this international pressure had been used to the Armenian government, it would have been far more beneficial.

A Gyumri Zoo Animals Update

At the Yerevan Zoo, the bears are currently growing strong and healthy while their transport cages are being set up and flights are being scheduled. The largest brown bear refuge in Europe is the Libearty Bear refuge, which is run by the Millions of Friends Association. There, the bears will get a second opportunity at a wonderful life! A coalition of international and local organizations has stepped in to oversee and coordinate the rescue of the lions, even though the BBF had also promised to pay for their transportation.
The Committee for the Protection of Captive Animals in Armenia, which is funded by the government, was founded by the Armenian Ministry of Nature Protection to oversee efforts and provide guidelines for private zoos. Like the bears, the lions will soon be relocated to the FPWC’s rescue and rehabilitation facility where they can be treated before being taken to a sanctuary. To choose the finest sanctuary for the lions, the group is looking at a wide range of options.


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