In the Midst of War, the Fight for Animal Survival
Under siege from the Russian invasion, Feldman Ecopark, a zoo in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, became the site for a daring rescue mission as both staff and volunteers worked to evacuate animals out of the warzone. Large predators like lions and bears had been trapped in their enclosures as Russian shelling destroyed Ecopark, and transporting them to safety took a team willing to risk their lives. Their story is captured in “Checkpoint: Zoo,” a forthcoming documentary by Joshua Zeman, a now full-time resident of Falls Village, Conn., whose filmmaking career has included “The Loneliest Whale: The Search For 52” distributed by Hulu and executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Adrian Grenier. Zeman spoke with me ahead of a presentation on the film he’ll be giving at the David M. Hunt Library in Falls Village on Saturday, March 4.
Alexander Wilburn: In this conflict, we’ve seen, in addition to the civilian loss of life, the effect of the bombing on animals. Pets were abandoned in the streets, and farm animals were killed during shelling, but the zoo faced a particular Crisis. Can you tell me how you first learned about Feldman Ecopark and the plight they were facing?
Joshua Zeman: It started with a New York Times story about this chimpanzee that was roaming the streets of Kharkiv. They were able to lure her back by using a bicycle and having her ride back to the zoo. I did an animal documentary with DiCaprio that was about this search for one unique whale. That had gotten some great reviews, they called it a modern-day “Moby Dick,” so I’m always looking for really interesting and engaging animal stories that sort of transcend your typical nature documentary. When I saw this story about the chimp I was intrigued, and I found out that she had come from Ecopark. I thought that was really interesting, the story of these displaced animals, much like the displaced Ukrainians who were at the time streaming out of the country during the conflict. There were a lot of stories about places being bombed, and farms being bombed, but what makes Ecopark unique is that it really was behind enemy lines, in between the last checkpoint of the Ukrainian army and the Russian front. The Russians were on the edge of the park, so the park almost became this no man’s land, like the buffers used in war.
AW: The zoo is located in this really vulnerable spot, and prior to the war they were also conducting a lot of work with endangered species and preservation, right?
JZ: The film tries to talk about the unintended victims, the collateral of war. We don’t automatically think of animals during wartime. But the film also talks about the importance of zoos in societies. People can say, “We shouldn’t have zoos, look what happened here,” but actually zoos are becoming more places of conservation and breeding and wildlife reproduction than they ever have before, so I think that’s important to consider in the conversation with animals and conflict.
AW: This has been a conflict where we’ve seen a lot of on-the-ground civilian footage, especially through TikTok, how much did that contribute to the filming process?
JZ: There’s an article in The New York Times today that says the war in Ukraine is the first "TikTok War." Ecopark was evacuating these animals, but they had no way to get the larger predators out because it was so much more involved. It required cages and tranquilizers. So the zoo started posting videos, like one video of a young men evacuating the kangaroos. It’s wicked cute and the video was aired on [The Late Show with Stephen Colbert]. Once that ended up on Colbert, Ecopark realized they could ask for help on social media with the larger animals — and they got all this help. So they really learned to use social media to help save these animals. But in this war, we’ve replaced the Walter Cronkite, 7 p.m. news coverage of Vietnam with TikTok. That’s how most people see this war, they see it through their social media feeds.
AW: Through Tiktok, we get a ton of really immediate footage. How do you see that as affecting the role of the documentary?
JZ: In previous decades we’d hear that there was no way you could incorporate cellphone footage into a documentary, the audience won’t accept that as creatively legitimate. But now I can use cellphone footage because in the context of war, and in the immediacy of war, this is how we document life now. That allows for a lot more stories to be told, and the democratization of that storytelling because it’s not being filtered through CNN.
AW: I have to imagine traveling to Ukraine was a unique filming experience.
JZ: I filmed a Netflix series called “Murder Mountain” so I spent a year up in Humboldt County [Calif.] with a whole bunch of outlaw weed dealers with a bunch of guns in my face, so it was a different kind of danger. For “The Loneliest Whale” I spent two weeks out in the ocean on a boat tagging whales — so this was a different kind of danger.
AW: Do you feel like this was the next level of extreme environments?
JZ: I’m not like an adrenaline junkie, I just like drama in my stories.
AW: You certainly had that, as well as this group of volunteers, zookeepers, even the zoo owner, millionaire Oeksandr Feldman, helping to rescue these animals, a cast that cuts across all these different economic groups in Kharkiv — as well as human casualties.
JZ: It brings up a good question, which is why are some people willing to risk their lives to save animals. This is a no-brainer for some people, but other people would say that’s a ridiculous thing. Is it our empathy? What is it? There had been stories about Feldman Ecopark that were circulating in the press, but it wasn’t until reaching out to them that I realized the depth of the situation. Four zookeepers were killed, and there was a 15-year-old boy who was killed who was the son of two zookeepers… the idea of these young kids risking their lives to rescue these predatory animals while bombs are dropping was just so crazy.
AW: As you’ve seen this war progress, do you think the ecological ramifications are part of the conversation?
JZ: I think because of the intimacy that social media has provided, more and more we’re realizing the larger implications of war. I think this was one of the quickest times we’ve realized the unintended consequences of war — can you imagine all of these citizens had to evacuate and leave their pets behind? Their pets are like their children, their most intense source of comfort, and then they have to leave them. I think we have a far more nuanced understanding of the implications of war, but I’m not sure we have yet to fully understand the long-term ecological and environmental effects this will have, but we will be seeing it. It will be interesting to see how they rebuild and what Ukraine becomes.