Tbilisi flood: Zoo animals still loose in Georgia capital

Heavy flooding in Tbilisi Sunday left possibly a dozen people dead and escaped zoo animals roaming the streets.

Beso Gulashvili/AP Photo
People follow a hippopotamus that has been shot with a tranquilizer dart after it escaped from a flooded zoo in Tbilisi, Georgia, Sunday, June 14, 2015. Tigers, lions, a hippopotamus and other animals have escaped from the zoo in Georgia’s capital after heavy flooding destroyed their enclosures, prompting authorities to warn residents in Tbilisi to say inside Sunday.

Lions, tigers, and bears, indeed.

Massive flooding in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, on Sunday set loose about half of the residents of the city zoo, among them big cats, wolves, hyenas, and a hippopotamus, multiple news agencies have reported. Up to 12 people may have been killed, three of whom were found in the zoo, and several have been reported missing. None of the reports so far have indicated that any casualties were due to animal attacks, however.

The floods came after heavy rainfall, which began before midnight Saturday, caused the local Vere river to swell and burst, flowing into parts of a highway and sweeping away cars and at least one structure.

The Tbilisi Zoo sits along the banks of the Vere.

“The situation is rather difficult,” Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said, according to The Washington Post. “We haven’t seen anything like this in Tbilisi before.”

Photos and video circulating in social media showed a lion roaming the city, as well as an alligator slinking down a flooded street. A hippo, which has since been tranquilized, was also spotted in one of the city’s main plazas.

Some of the animals, including a bear, a hyena, and six wolves found on the grounds of children’s hospital, were killed when they couldn’t be captured, according to The New York Times. Some residents protested the killings, but officials said the animals were too aggressive to be secured, the Times reported.

A full tally of the animals still loose was not immediately possible because large parts of the zoo remain underwater, the Associated Press reported.

“Not all the animals who ran away from the zoo have been captured." Tbilisi mayor David Narmania said, according to the AP.

“Therefore, I want to ask the populace to refrain from moving about the city” unless absolutely necessary, he said. Among those missing were 20 wolves, eight lions, and several jaguars and tigers, the Times reported. 

The flood has left thousands of people without water or electricity, dozens of families homeless, and at least 36 people injured, a local news agency, Agenda, reported. Preliminary estimates put the damages at $40 million.

Rescue efforts have been underway since early Sunday morning. Photos on Tbilisi City Hall’s Facebook page show rescue workers carrying civilians through muddy waters and pulling partly-submerged cars out of the muck. Police also airlifted 16 people out of Akhaldaba, west of Tbilisi, where rains led to damaged roads and a major landslide, according to Agenda.

Mayor Narmania has called on Tbilisi residents to help with cleanup operations in the city, while the prime minister has declared June 15 a day of mourning for the flood victims. 

President Giorgi Margvelashvili has also expressed condolences to the victims' families, visiting the parts of the city worst hit by the floods.

“It is a great tragedy when you lose a family member,” he said at a press conference. “The streets will be cleared. Everything will be restored. But unfortunately, it is impossible to return the people who fell victim to the elements.”

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