Maryna Skvyria

Co-founder of the "White Rock" bear shelter, chief zoologist of the Kyiv Zoo. Studies large predators (wolves, bears).

“My husband and I immediately decided to move and stay with the bears” — a story about the rehabilitation centre for animals, work in wartime and research on large carnivores.

Story by the zoologist Maryna Shkviria.

I knew since my very childhood that I would be a zoologist. I dreamed of becoming an astronaut when I was around four years old. But I was told that my health would not allow me to follow that dream. Apart from that, I knew two other professions — teacher and welder — but I was not too fond of either of them.

Then I realised that I could feed tigers in the zoo — and my life improved. When I was about to enter the university, I already started collecting material for my future graduation thesis and dissertation. At that time, I did not quite understand the job of a zoologist, but I was constantly heading toward this profession.

When it comes to large carnivores, I am mainly interested in ecology and behavioural characteristics and differences in the behaviour and ecology of various geographic populations. To do this, you must choose a specific territory and come there during the year: you walk a lot, look for tracks, excrement, remains of prey, and set photo traps. If funding is available, special collars can be fitted to animals to help track their movements and behaviour.

I also study the human-predator conflict — trying to understand how humans can best coexist with animals. This topic is on the intersection of different spheres and covers the biological and social components. So I gradually switched to animal rehabilitation, and as a result, the “White Rock” shelter appeared.

Launching the “White Rock” rehabilitation centre for bears 

While working with wild predators, you constantly face problems, particularly with finding dwellings for animals living in poor conditions. Initially, we tried to accommodate them in different menageries, advised the owners on care matters, and even issued methodical recommendations. But later, we decided to concentrate on work according to specific standards.

In 2012, I participated in the launch of the first two shelters that appeared. The state initiated one shelter — a rehabilitation centre for brown bears in the Synevyr National Nature Park. The second shelter was a small temporary solution by the Austrian international foundation “Four Paws”, which was looking for a place for its large rehabilitation centre in Ukraine. When they found a spot in the Lviv region and began to arrange the “Domazhyr” shelter, my husband, friends and I created the Ukrainian fund “Save Wild”, — and we started managing this small shelter. 

We gradually restored and transferred our bears to “Domazhyr” and continued to rescue other bears and wolves. In 2020, we moved to the Kyiv region, and we continue working here.

We have several types of activities. On the one hand, it is legislative work: we actively collaborate with activists, organisations, and officials. Little by little, we are changing the legislation on animal protection. The second aspect of our work is animal rescuing and rehabilitation. And the third direction is education. Although our shelter is small, it is a good demonstration site: during excursions, which are held several days a week, visitors can learn about the large carnivores’ behaviour, their rehabilitation peculiarities, nature protection in Ukraine, the problems of wildlife trade, circuses and contraband. 

How the full-scale war affected the work of the rehabilitation shelter

In the first hours of the full-scale invasion, our staff could not get to the shelter, so my husband and I immediately decided to move and stay with the bears. Of course, being outside the city was more frightening than remaining in Kyiv. That is why at the beginning of March, when the situation had already become critical, we temporarily evacuated all seven bears to the Lviv region.

We did not plan to take the bears abroad, but our colleagues from two excellent German rehabilitation centres offered three places — for cubs and a Himalayan bear. Since they need specific conditions, we gladly agreed — we prepared the necessary documents and sent them to Germany.

Three months later, after the Kyiv region de-occupation and logistics restoration, the other four bears returned to our shelter. We also hosted an arctic wolf and a Himalayan bear — both from the Donetsk region, from the active hostilities zones. The wolf will stay with us, but the bear will most likely go to a new home in Europe.

“It was difficult to predict how the animals would behave under such circumstances.”

The zoos of Ukraine have a different experience of war. For example, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv constantly suffer from shelling — this creates logistical problems, electricity and water supply interruptions, financial difficulties. Berdyansk “Safari Park” and the reserve “Askania-Nova” came under occupation almost immediately.

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Kyiv Zoo ended up in isolation. Despite this, there were no catastrophic consequences. We took the warnings of American intelligence very seriously: we bought fodder, and organised supplies of water, litter, and hay – all of this was ready on the zoo territory; we considered methods of heating and discussed the action plan in case of escalation and the timetable of the team on duty. In the “White Rock” shelter, preparations were made similarly. Of course, we did not think about such a large scale of invasion – we expected a short-term drop in logistics or an escalation in the East.

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, about 50 employees moved to the zoo (some with their families), where they stayed during the entire period of active hostilities in Kyiv and the Kyiv region. They lived, ate and cared for animals there. Of course, there were dangerous moments — for example, when fragments of a downed rocket fell into the territory and damaged the facade of the boiler house.

It was difficult to predict how the animals would behave under such circumstances, but whatever happens, the protocol here is pretty straightforward. The animals who tend to stress the most — elephants and giraffes — received light sedatives from the first day to get used to the new conditions. In a few days, they adapted. The elephant even learned to enter the room during air raid sirens. Giraffes began to treat shelling like thunder (which they also fear). That is, even with such complex animals, the situation was okay.

The female lemur gave up her cub — it was nursed and named Bayraktar. Pelicans broke their own nest of eggs. But this is definitely not the worst thing that could have happened.

About reasons to care about science nowadays and plans for the near future

I believe that now more than ever, we should care about the “civilisation superstructures” — science, creativity, animal protection. It is necessary so that we are perceived in the world as equals, as people who also do science and save animals. If we want to be a part of Western civilisation, receive help and support, we should continue working and evolving. After all, we are fighting for our country to exist and change for the better.

Now we are mainly dealing with the issue of survival. Winter is coming, which means financial difficulties, repair work, etc. At the same time, the rescue and transportation of animals are ongoing.

At the zoo, we continue our nature protection projects. Recently, for example, the red book hamster reintroduction programme was resumed — at the end of the summer, we managed to release several individuals into the wild. The rehabilitation centre for bats is also active.

And after our victory, we will have to make an extensive European-African tour to visit all the animals we evacuated from the hostilities zones to various foreign rehabilitation centres. We would also like to visit and thank our colleagues for their help.

arrowNext story