Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Articles about Greece

They were, let’s face it, scruffy. I knew that things would be bad, so was hardly surprised at the shaggy tattered coats or by how thin they were. What I had not expected was how they just seemed to accept their fate. There was no assertiveness, let alone aggression, just a listless kind of stupor that showed in the dullness of their eyes. They were existing, but hardly ‘living’ and appeared totally disinterested, indeed unaware, of the trickle of people that made their way passed the bars of their enclosure.

A fellow visitor, southern American I guessed by her drawl, was clearly distressed by their condition. “Oh, the poor things,” she said, “they really are in the most terrible state.”

A man, smartly dressed in lederhosen, turned to her “Good morning ma’am, Wolfgang at your service”. He all but clicked his heels. “I am the Inspector of Zoos. These bears had it too good a few years back, and now they are reaping the consequences. Quite right too in my opinion – and my opinion counts! Anyway they are just bears what can they expect?”

“A decent life,” replied the American, “such as they should have in a democratic country like my own. I guess these poor darlings haven’t seen a square meal in months, just look at the state of them. Those responsible should not be allowed to get away with it.”

Whilst I had a good deal of sympathy with this trans-Atlantic viewpoint I think I would have walked on had not the Keeper who was accompanying the Inspector, joined the conversation, “Quite right, madam,” he said, “but Thessaloniki Zoo is broke.”

“How come?” I said.

“Well the financial people say that we have borrowed too much money against our real estate. Now we can't pay even the interest on this, so it’s my animals that suffer – they go hungry.”

“That's too bad,” said the lady, “it is so unfair. It’rsquos not the bears’ fault. They can’t control what the zoo does. What is more they have a great deal of potential, they bring money into the zoo because of all the tourists that come here.”

“I am told that visitor numbers have dropped right off over these last few years,” I said. “Apparently there’s no chance of the bears generating more funds, what this place needs is good solid investment.”

“It should be run with precision. It needs a sound infrastructure, a proper business plan, and an imposition of austerity,” said Wolfgang.

The Keeper responded, “But this place has just seen six years of austerity. Look at those bears, they just cannot take any more hardship.”

I wondered if the zoo might manage to generate enough income for its survival. The Keeper said that he thought so, but at the moment all the money that they earned went to pay off the debt. Perhaps the debt could be written down? Wolfgang opined that this was not possible and wondered if the zoo was still fit to be a member of the Zoological Association of Europe.

“I thought the zoo had just appointed a new director,” said I, “and I understand he has some radical new ideas? That sounds exactly what is needed?”

“Indeed,” replied the Keeper, “and very popular Alexis is. But he can’t convince the Association. He’s been in discussion with them for over six months now. At first his colleague, Yanis, tried to explain in logical terms the economics of zoo-keeping, but the Members simply did not, or would not, understand him.”

“I heard about that,” said the American, “Their only interest was in perpetuating their bureaucracy, indeed they were affronted at this well-educated zoo employee telling them what to do. The sheer temerity of it!”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“We had a vote,” said the Keeper, “I’m none too sure what it was all about, but we were determined to keep the zoo independent. The vast majority here voted ‘Oxi’. But what we said no to was never very clear!”

One of the bears slowly rose to its feet and ambled forward towards us. It was a pitiful sight, swaying slightly as it moved, drooling from its jaws. And yet it from it emanated a very real dignity. It stopped short of the bars and with considerable effort rose on its two hind feet and looked squarely at us. Just for a moment its dull eyes sparkled and as it fell back on all fours and turned to join its fellow I think we all realized that there was a fire within it that had not yet been extinguished.

The Keeper was speaking again. “Yanis told his colleagues of a wonderful place, a sanctuary up in the mountains where bears thrive in their own ecosystem. He said it was sustained by goodwill and even had its own currency so that the Association had no say in the running of the place. He had run into terrible trouble with the Association because they simply would not entertain the idea of the bears leaving without paying their dues.”

“Quite right too,” said Wolfgang. “There should be no write-off. If these bears starve then it’s entirely the fault of the zoo, years of mismanagement and no doubt rather more years of corruption in high places – now they want to have a free lunch! Bah!”

The American lady was not quite so sure. “Well, as I understand it, the Zoo was encouraged to mortgage its real estate. I know they have behaved rather irresponsibly, but my concern is the state of the animals. I mean surely you cannot condemn these bears to a lifetime of such a regime?”

“So what’s going to happen now?” I asked.

“Ah,” said the Keeper, “You would hardly believe it. Alexis went back to the Association and told them the Zoo wanted to be treated more flexibly, however the Council immediately decreed that the zoo would get no further funds. Alexis tried to ration out the little we had, but you can see how the poor bears fared, just look at them.”

“Grim,” I said, “but surely Yanis’ idea of the bear sanctuary was good?”

“Maybe,” said the Keeper, “but we are unlikely to find out. The Association asked for his resignation as a condition of maintaining the zoo.”

“So what happened?”

“Nothing very much. The zoo was told that it could have just enough funds to pay the interest on what it had borrowed, and a few more scraps were made available for the bears. The Association decided that we must sell off parts of the zoo so that interest on the debts can be repaid.”

I looked around me. The zoo had not changed despite the efforts of the new Director. The American lady’s interest had been ephemeral. Once she had voiced her concern in a strident manner, she had simply wandered off. The lederhosen man seemed to be about to follow her.

“Are you off?” I said to him.

“Soon,” said Wolfgang, “I have inspected this zoo many times over the past decade or so. I think it would be better if it had decided to leave the Association, then we would be able to concentrate on other, better, zoos. Now my colleagues and I will have to keep coming back here even more frequently to just check that the zoo is implementing the austerity regime that the Association agreed.

I turned to the Keeper. “The bears don’t seem to have done well under these new arrangements?”

“Not at all,” he said, “indeed they are worse of now than before. The Director was forced to agree to all sorts of cutbacks, so we have less staff, fewer services, and rather more expensive food.”

“What about the longer term? Will it work? Will the zoo prosper and become independent again?”

The keeper looked at me. He couldn’t speak, but with a tear in his eye and a slight shake of his head he turned back to his beloved bears.


The real bears of Thessaloniki Zoo did of course get transferred in the early summer of 2015 to the excellent bear sanctuary run so well by Arktouros at Aetos near Florina.


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