The Bloody Violence of Similarity
A Nasty History of the Moscow Zoo and the People’s Upholstery
One of the many overlooked capillaries of the history of life in the USSR is an incident recorded in the accident files of the Moscow Zoo. Dated 8th February 1974, the entry is headed with ‘Death of keeper due to upholstery in tiger enclosure’. The brief report following this enigmatic description includes a vivid account from a terrified eyewitness. ‘The keeper was bent down, pouring chunks of meat from a great sack into the trough. He didn’t know the last tiger was still inside. It was only when it moved that I noticed it, and I couldn’t speak, I was outside looking in through the windows and I was trying to warn him but it happened so fast and my mouth wouldn’t make the sounds. I screamed as it leapt, but it was too late. The man started to turn but the tiger was already above him. He shrieked, but the tiger didn’t make any noise at all, it didn’t roar, it tore his throat with its jaws in an instant, and then just turned and walked away and started licking the blood from its fur. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.’
The nature of the role played by the ‘upholstery’ mentioned is less clear from the report, the only further mention is in the section for ‘Any necessary action? – For Supervisor Only’ In which the opinion is given that ‘the offending animal should not be destroyed, as the behaviour
was not in any way deviant from the expected behaviour of this species in this situation. The responsibility for this tragic accident must rest with the keepers and administrators.’ A list of recommendations is given for further procedures to be implemented in order to ensure the safety of keepers during entrances into the enclosures of all ‘dangerous animals’. The strongest recommendation, made in no uncertain terms, is that the lining of the walls of the enclosure be changed ‘despite the good fortune of finding a plentiful source of sturdy material’ for an alternative that will not ‘add, as we have paid a high price to discover, a great amount of danger to the necessary daily processes of keeping these animals’.
The report does not go into further detail about the upholstery, beyond describing it as a ‘sturdy material’. However, the wording of the recommendation is telling, suggesting that whatever it was, the material was not purposefully made for the use of the zoo, but rather acquired from existing surpluses elsewhere. Investigation of the zoo’s accounts over the five years before the incident reveal a tightening of the budget in numerous areas, from animal feed (cut to the bare minimum necessary to ensure survival) to gasoline for the small truck used by keepers for transporting grains to the elephant enclosure, and dung away. During this lean period, approximately a year before the death of the keeper, a request was made by the head keeper for an additional lump sum from the budget to re-line the walls of the tiger enclosure. The request was granted, but the sum far smaller than the quote given for the likely cost. Nothing appears in the budget relating to this matter until six months later when payment of a sum similar to the amount granted for the renovations is made to the state department for transport. Listed next to the payment is a description of the material apparently complicit in deaths of the two keepers, 300 m2 of ‘seat upholstery, patterned orange & brown’.