Wild Things

Athens’ Zoo Animals Are at Risk of Starvation

A young brown bear cools itself in a pool of the Attica Zoological Park in 2005.

Photo by Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Dolphins do not usually have to worry about financial crises. But Greece’s current economic troubles may soon have a deadly impact on the dolphins, penguins, lemurs, and other animals in Attica Park, Athens’ only zoo. Many of the zoo’s 2,200 residents require imported specialty foods to survive—yet government-imposed restrictions on cash are blocking the zoo’s ability to access foreign shipments. And without immediate relief, some of the zoo’s animals may be just weeks away from starvation.

The trouble for Attica Park arises from the Greek government’s capital controls. These rules severely limit cash withdrawals from Greek banks, as well as money transfer to foreign banks. Spooked by Greece’s economic woes, the zoo’s suppliers are demanding cash in advance. But Jean-Jacques Lesueur, Attica Park’s founder, can’t access or transfer adequate funds to pay his suppliers in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. As a result, his zoo may soon be cut off from the fish, worms, additives, and other enriched foods necessary for some animals’ diets.

When countries descend into political or economic turmoil, zoo animals often fall victim to food shortages like this one. During the 2014 Ukraine crisis, 9,500 animals at the Kiev zoo faced awful conditions and narrowly averted starvation. Dozens of lions and tigers at a Crimea zoo came close to going hungry when Ukraine cut off funds to the region following its annexation. The animals of the Baghdad Zoo were devastated during the 2003 invasion of the city, dying of starvation and thirst. (Conservationists and the United States military worked together to eventually repopulate the zoo.) Conflicts in Kuwait, Kosovo, and Afghanistan also led to the abandonment and death of thousands of zoo animals.

The fauna of Attica Park face a financial crisis, not a war. Their outlook, however, remains bleak. Even if the government relaxes its capital controls, the zoo’s attendance has plummeted as disposable income in the country runs dry. Just as ominously, Greece’s new bailout detail arrives with a massive new tax that will hit Attica Park hard. Right now, Lesueur just wants to keep his animals fed; beyond that, he has no long-term plan to keep the private zoo afloat. It seems that, in 2015, a zoo may be a luxury that Athens simply cannot afford.