Scottish zoo will adopt Yampil the bear, rescued from Ukrainian front line
The Washington Post September 14, 2023
Hiding in the wreckage of an abandoned zoo in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, the eastern front line so fiercely contested by Russian and Ukrainian forces that entire cities were reduced to rubble in the fighting, was an unlikely survivor.
Shells had battered his home, and his caretakers were long gone. Around 200 of his companions had perished. But somehow, a lone Asian black bear was clinging to life in a cell when Ukrainian soldiers discovered the zoo last fall.
A shell had exploded near the bear’s cage, concussing him, and he was emaciated from a lack of food, according to a press release. He seemed to be days from death.
But volunteers bundled the bear into a truck and drove him to safety. They named him Yampil, after the village where he was found, and hoped he might make a symbolic recovery.
Now, Yampil has a new home, thousands of miles away from the war. Five Sisters Zoo in Scotland has promised to adopt Yampil and continue to aid in his recovery, the zoo announced in a press release Tuesday.
“He’s had a bit of a journey,” Romain Pizzi, a veterinarian who is working with Five Sisters Zoo on Yampil’s adoption, told The Washington Post.
Pizzi described Yampil as a gentle giant, whose large stature belies a remarkably calm, cautious personality.
“Really beautiful,” Pizzi said. “He’s got big sort of Mickey Mouse-type ears.”
His home, the village of Yampil, was liberated from Russian occupation in late September 2022 as Ukrainian forces mounted a swift counteroffensive that succeeded in recapturing key cities in the Donetsk region. The Yampil zoo sat on the village’s outskirts, abandoned and left in disrepair by the war.
Volunteers who assisted Ukrainian soldiers at the zoo found dozens of animal corpses strewn across its grounds, the Kyiv Independent reported. The animals had either been killed by Russian troops or had died of starvation, according to the Independent.
Yampil the bear was discovered in a shelled-out corner of the zoo, locked in a tiny cell, a volunteer told the Independent. They raced to evacuate the bear before Russian troops fired on the village.
Yampil was whisked from the front line and taken to a Polish zoo, then a Belgian wildlife rehabilitation center, where he was slowly nursed back to health. The center contacted Five Sisters Zoo, which had previously taken in rescued brown bears from the center, about potentially adopting the bear.
“When we were made aware of the awful treatment and conditions Yampil was subjected to, our hearts broke,” Brian Curran, the owner of Five Sisters Zoo, said in the zoo’s press release. “We were just so amazed he was still alive and well.”
Pizzi traveled to Belgium on Monday to meet Yampil and assess the bear’s condition. He was initially concerned about the toll of the war on the bear’s mental health, he said.
“They are very intelligent,” Pizzi said. “We don’t know exactly what he went through, but obviously he went through something very stressful.”
But to Pizzi’s surprise, Yampil was resilient. Upon observation, the bear was cautious and shy, though jumpy, which could probably be explained by the war he’d lived through, Pizzi said. But he didn’t appear to exhibit any stressed behavior that might indicate behavioral issues. So far, the only operation Yampil will need in Scotland is a root canal for a broken tooth.
“He looks in much better health,” Pizzi said. “... It’s sort of quite inspiring.”
Five Sisters Zoo plans to welcome Yampil in early 2024, Pizzi said. The zoo is still constructing a new enclosure for the bear, using observations from Pizzi and the Belgian center to tailor his new environment to his habits. In keeping with his cautious nature, Yampil appears to eschew climbing trees, unlike many Asian black bears, Pizzi said. He added that it may still be too early to tell whether further injuries — physical or mental — will emerge.
If all goes well, Yampil, a young adult male, could live around another 20 years in Scotland, Pizzi said.
“It’s very sad what’s happening, but I think it is something positive,” Pizzi said. “How even an animal, this bear, managed to survive this horrible situation and is now coming back to sort of normality. It gives you hope.”