When staff from Five Sisters Zoo in West Lothian travelled to Belgium in September to visit a bear that they plan to rehome later this month, they were not sure what to expect.
Less than a year earlier, Yampil had been only a few days from death when he was found by Ukrainian troops in the ruins of an abandoned zoo in the town near Donetsk that gave him his name.
But following his traumatic ordeal, the asiatic black bear appeared to show no scars of the shelling that destroyed his habitat or the Russian occupation that killed almost all of the 200 other zoo animals.
The Five Sisters zookeepers were pleased to find a healthy bear chomping merrily on a cucumber when they arrived at his temporary home at the Natuurhulpcentrum rescue centre in eastern Belgium – a world away from the videos they had seen of Yampil, dirty and concussed after a shell landed near his enclosure, being carried through the rubble on a tarpaulin by soldiers.
Garry Curran, the head of carnivores, said: “Bears can often suffer mental health problems after going through a traumatic experience, and so it was really important we understood Yampil and what to expect from him.
“Although he appeared a little nervous at first, he seems to have adapted surprisingly well and didn’t actually show any concerning stress-related behaviours. He seems to be a calm and gentle individual, which was reassuring for all of us.”
Frederik Thoelen, a spokesperson for Natuurhulpcentrum, said: “If one animal deserves a good and better future, it’s without doubt war victim Yampil. We’re very grateful they can offer Yampil the future he deserves.”
Yampil’s thick fur and cartoonish ears are likely to make him a favourite at the Scottish zoo, where preparations are under way for his arrival at his temporary enclosure in the coming weeks, making him the first Ukrainian zoo refugee to arrive in the UK.
The zoo agreed to take him several months ahead of the original schedule of early 2024, to make space at Natuurhulpcentrum for newly rescued animals.
When Yampil wakes up from hibernation, he will be met with a custom-designed enclosure built just for him. But it comes at a cost: Five Sisters needs to raise £200,000 to cover the enclosure as well as his future upkeep and veterinary care for the rest of his life. The zoo has so far raised £50,000 and is appealing for donations.
A collective €2m has already been raised to support zoos in Ukraine in caring for their animals so that they can stay in the country, thanks to an emergency fundraiser from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA).
Zoo evacuations have been sporadic, the organisation said, as most animal evacuations come from Ukrainian rescue centres, which house animals from private collections and circuses, and have been organised by EARS, the European Alliance of Rescue Centres.
Poznań Zoo in Poland has taken in more than 200 animals from Ukraine, including 35 lions and eight tigers. Some of these animals are still in Poznań, while others have been rehomed in other EAZA member zoos, in EARS sanctuaries, and beyond.
Currently at Poznań is Aysa, a lioness who recently gave birth to three cubs, Teddi, Emi and Santa, after being rescued from a private zoo near Donetsk.
Yorkshire Wildlife Park is in the process of getting permission to move the lions to the UK before Christmas. Brexit has meant that paperwork is needed for each country the lions have to pass through on their way to their new home.
The wildlife park will be the second after Five Sisters to take Ukrainian zoo animals, though it became well known in 2010 for a successful rescue of 13 lions from terrible conditions in Romania.
Colin Northcott, the deputy head of carnivores, said Aysa was quite shaken and her cubs were wary when he visited them, but he expected them to come out of their shell in the 10-acre lion enclosure.
“They’re beautiful animals. They’re in very good condition, very good health,” he said. “But they are terrified. The mother has obviously been party to the bombing and things and young cubs will take all their cues from their mum, and so they will become terrified when mum’s terrified.
“But after three or four days, they were very calm in my presence and they would come out and sniff at me and things like that.”
He said the wildlife park would let visitors know as soon as they were comfortable enough to be seen.
“How long that will take is entirely up to the individual animals, and some will take to it quicker than others, but as soon as we are confident that they can go out into the enclosure and they’ll not panic, then we’ll be able to do that,” he said.