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Oleg Zubkov steals raccoons and other animals from Kherson Zoo

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Russia’s military has earned a reputation for plundering its way through Ukraine, taking washing machines, electronics, cultural artifacts and even the bones of Empress Catherine II’s lover. But the latest theft – including seven raccoons, two female wolves, peacocks, a llama and a donkey from the Kherson zoo – entered the realm of farce.

A private zoo in Crimea, Taigan Lion Park, owned by Oleg Zubkov, filmed him in a YouTube video with the caption “We are in Kherson. Oleg Zubkov catches raccoons with BARE HANDS!!!”

Video, which was no longer available on Sunday, showed him with two assistants taking the llama into a run-down, windowless van while a dog barked nearby. Another video uploaded on Sunday showed two wolves, which he said were from the Kherson Zoo, being discharged at the Crimean Zoo, while two Russian television channels were filming the event. He called it “temporary evacuation”.

“It will be much better for the wolves here: large territory, Crimean sun, and besides, after the quarantine they will get a male,” said Zubkov. “It was her dream to live here,” he claimed in comments to Russian media on YouTube.

He said the animals, including all the wolf cubs, would be sent back after Russia reoccupied Kherson.

“For us, this is a humanitarian mission. These animals have no zoological value for us. We have our own wolves. We have 75 raccoons. We could do canned raccoon meat,” he said, before echoing what seemed like an awkward joke. “We’re sorry. But seriously, we have a lot of raccoons, but we took these animals to keep them alive and so that the residents of Kherson would be happy to see them alive again. The animals are in good hands .”

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense released one of the videos and warned of retaliation for the raccoon theft.

Ukrainian troops retook the strategic southern city last week after a Russian retreat. Kherson was one of the first major cities to fall in the massive Kremlin invasion that began in February. The liberation was greeted with celebrations in the streets after months of Russian occupation.

The removal of the animals was widely reported in the Russian media and presented as a small bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture. It came to light when nationalist Russian poet and blogger Anna Dolgareva boasted on Telegram that the “only good news” about Moscow’s surrender of Kherson was that her friend had managed to rescue “a raccoon” from the Kherson zoo to steal.

“We will not return the raccoon,” Dolgareva said. “We’ll bring back Cherson.”

She said a Raccoon Telegram channel, Raccoon from Kherson, had been set up.

Ukrainian animal rights activist Oleksander Todorchuk confirmed the report on Facebook.

Zubkov, who calls himself Lion Man, was convicted of negligence after one of his tigers bit off the finger of a 1-year-old boy in October 2021. He was sentenced to two years and three months in prison and served two months. An occupation court reversed the sentence on October 27 and released him shortly thereafter, provided he did not leave the area. Zubkov said the Kremlin’s designated leader in Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, intervened to ensure he could travel to Kherson to retrieve the animals.

Last month, Russia’s designated head of administration in Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, said Russia had taken the bones of Grigory Potemkin from his tomb in Kherson. Potemkin, an 18th-century Russian military figure, annexed Crimea, founded the city, ruled Russia’s imperial lands in the region, and established the Black Sea Fleet. He was also known as a lover and close protégé of Empress Catherine II, who was known as Catherine the Great.

The loss of the city of Kherson destroys Putin’s war aims in Ukraine

Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of taking disabled children from Kherson to Crimea and Russia and taking away prisoners of war. Local independent media outlets aired videos of buses, fire engines, construction machinery and even a miniature train with its baby carriages, all being evicted from Kherson in the days before the city surrendered to Moscow.

Kherson’s Kremlin-appointed administration also removed hundreds of valuable artworks and icons from the Kherson Art Museum, emptied the gallery from October 31 to November 3, and shipped the works, wrapped in rags and packed in unmarked vans, to Crimea before the Russians Surrender of Kherson, according to museum staff in a Facebook post on November 4.

“They call it ‘evacuation’. In our language, it’s ‘looting,'” the post reads. The works later turned up in the Central Museum of Tavrida in the Crimean city of Simferopol. The Kherson police announced a criminal investigation into the theft of the works, although they are focused on stabilizing the recently retaken city.

Police also reported that Russian forces stole four medical center staff cars, hospital computer equipment, medicines, civilian cars, boats and hunting weapons.

Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of looting or damaging hundreds of Ukrainian cultural institutions during the war.

According to Ukrainian officials, Russian forces also mined buildings and blew up a TV tower, communications towers and bridges in central Kherson. Local media reported witnesses who said they saw Russians removing building materials, furniture and household appliances from Kherson.

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