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Tbilisi Zookeeper Lives, Dies For Her Animals

  • Marina Vashakmadze
  • Claire Bigg

TBILISI -- She lived, and ultimately died, for her animals.

That's how grieving colleagues describe Guliko Chitadze, a zookeeper who was recovering from a tiger attack when she drowned in the devastating flashflood that hit the Georgian capital.

Chitadze, the Tbilisi Zoo's main animal keeper, had spent several weeks recuperating from the mauling that made headlines in May.

Despite her injuries, which required the amputation of one of her arms, she longed to be reunited with the animals under her care.

But just two days after being discharged from the hospital, her wounds still healing, she died in the flood that swept through the zoo on June 14. Two other keepers, along with about half of the zoo's 600 animals, perished in the flood and its aftermath.

"The zoo was not only her home, it was her whole world, it was everything to her," grieves Tbilisi Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze. "She had a special relationship with the animals, she had raised many of them herself. It's a great loss and such an unfortunate twist of fate that she insisted on leaving the hospital two days before the flood."

The flashflood, which killed at least 19 people and buried downtown Tbilisi in mud, has left the city reeling.

One part of Tbilisi Zoo after the deadly floods of June 14.

One part of Tbilisi Zoo after the deadly floods of June 14.

Chitadze's death struck a particularly painful chord with local residents, many of whom had followed her work -- and more recently her recovery -- through the media.

Adding to the tragedy, one of the other two zoo employees killed in the flood was her own husband, Malkhaz Chitadze.

The couple had worked at the zoo for 26 years and lived in a small house on its territory. Living in such close quarters with the animals enabled them to take care of newborns that required round-the-clock care.

A video provided by the zoo shows Chitadze lovingly bottle-feeding a tiny tiger cub.

Another recent clip, shot by RFE/RL's Georgian Service, features one of the lions she raised, Shumba, in a pen with one of the Chitadzes' family dogs, a poodle named Karakula.

The heartwarming friendship between Shumba and Karakula was the subject of countless television reports and had moved animal lovers across Georgia.

Karakula survived the flood, but Shumba was found dead.

Gurielidze says it was the arrival of a wild Caucasian ox that spurred Chitadze to rush back to the zoo from the hospital.

Lali Edilashvili, the zoo's nutrition expert and a close friend, says Chitadze was effectively a surrogate mother for many of the animals.

Tiger Attack

She says the tigers who mauled her never meant harm.

According to her, Chitadze entered the tigers' pen to retrieve a toy accidentally dropped by a little girl. Edilashvili believes the zookeeper was hurt because she was not on duty that day and was wearing a dress instead of her uniform.

"The wind lifted her dress and the tigers caught it with their claws," she says. "Guliko fell to the ground. It wasn't that the tigers were aggressive, they just saw the dress flutter and wanted to play with her. They were unaware of their own strength."

Guliko and Malkhaz Chitadze were in their house on the evening of the flood.

Edilashvili, who spoke to her friend on the telephone, says Chitadze had just received the baby ox and was in high spirits.

"She was so cheerful when she told me that her husband had brought that little wild ox to their home," Edilashvili recalls. "She said that it was raining heavily and that Malkhaz was in the hallway trying to sweep the water out because it had seeped into the house."

It may have been Chitadze's last conversation.

Minutes later, the floodwaters engulfed her home.

"Guliko could not have imagined her life without her work," says David Taktakishvili, the zoo's deputy director. "She dedicated her whole life to animals and, in the end, she died for them."

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​