Photograph by Beso Gulashvili, AFP/Getty
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A hippopotamus walks across a flooded street in Tbilisi on June 14. The nearby Vera River overflowed, destroying buildings, killing people and freeing animals from their cages at Tbilisi Zoo.

Photograph by Beso Gulashvili, AFP/Getty

Zookeepers Come To Aid Of Georgian Zoo After Flood

After severe floods in Tbilisi, Georgia, elite zookeepers from the Prague Zoo help exhume hundreds of animal bodies from the waist-deep muck.

As soon as he heard about the catastrophic floods and escaped zoo animals in Tbilisi, Georgia, the director of the Prague Zoo, Miroslav Bobek, sent a team of seven experienced zookeepers to help.

The deluge destroyed homes and buildings, and killed as many as 19 people. The situation was made worse by the hundreds of zoo animals that escaped during the floods and roamed the streets. Police have shot several, including a white tiger that killed a man Wednesday.

Watch: Flood 101—No other kind of natural disaster in America has caused more death and destruction than floods.

The zookeepers Bobek sent have flood experience. Prague Zoo was previously hit by severe floods in 2002 and in 2013. National Geographic spoke with Bobek about the challenges his colleagues face in Tbilisi. (Read our explorer Paul Salopek's take on the Tbilisi flood.)

What are the zookeepers you sent doing to help?

Right now our colleagues are extricating the cadavers of animals from mud. The mud in the zoo is waist-deep, and our people have to help each other to get out of it. A man stays still for a while and he starts disappearing like in sand dunes. Some time earlier, our people were cleaning penguins from motor oil.

How did the flooding help animals escape?

Water, mud, stones, and trunks quickly and completely destroyed the line of cages in the Vera River Valley, and the animals remained inside. From the exhibits which had openings at their tops, some animals were able to escape, but some died inside. This explains why the numbers of animals [that] escaped was unclear. The central belt of exhibits was two-thirds flooded, and the animals [that] survived, stayed on the dry land where they were safe. Only the upper line of aviaries, enclosures, and exhibits remained undamaged.

Watch: Footage of animals roaming the streets in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Were any Tbilisi Zoo employees hurt during the flood?

Three staff members died during the floods, not because they were attacked by carnivores.

How many animals died?

A large part of the 600 animals kept at Tbilisi Zoo before the floods, and almost half of all the mammals, are dead. The major part of the Zoo itself is located on a mere 9 hectares of absolutely improper terrain surrounded by construction and a busy street. This is why the relocation of the Zoo was long considered even before the current catastrophe. Now is a good opportunity to realize this. (See "Opinion: Killing Healthy Zoo Animals Is Wrong—And the Public Agrees.")

Is it known how many animals are still free?

The situation became complicated by the fact, that during the floods the army put the zoo staff members aside and was shooting the animals dead, and later it did not communicate with the zoo management. It led to totally contradictory information, even now it is not clear, if or where one tiger is wandering.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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