Zoo where you are asked to feed the animals

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The Independent Online

The hippopotamus surged up out of the water, its jaws wide open. There was no protective barrier and the crowd stepped back nervously.

The hippopotamus surged up out of the water, its jaws wide open. There was no protective barrier and the crowd stepped back nervously.

Then a man took a handful of wild flowers and popped them in the hippo's mouth, his hand lingering between its jaws. The hippo subsided into its pool, munching contentedly.

In Macedonia's zoo, people do the things you are usually warned against, such as feeding the animals. The baboons crowded against the bars of their cage as they saw people approaching, stretching out their arms for food. Children started giving them cheese puffs, their fingers touching as they stretched across the space between the cage and the barrier.

Many of the enclosures at the zoo were filthy. A bear was busily nosing its way through a pile of old crisp packets and Coke cans.

Nato helicopters thundered overhead, on their way to collect arms from Albanian rebels, as part of a Western effort to prevent civil war. Macedonia, its budget stretched to the limits paying for fighter jets, has little time to worry about the air of slow decay at Skopje zoo.

Wild animals have had a pretty bad time of it in the Balkans in recent years. During the Bosnia war, bears were seen fleeing across the border to seek refuge in the mountains of Serbia, which were peaceful at that time. Later, during the 1999 Nato air campaign, one of the tigers at Belgrade zoo was so terrified of the bombs it gnawed its paws to shreds.

Just as the Serb warlord Arkan called his paramilitaries the Tigers, the Macedonians have adopted the habit of naming élite forces and paramilitaries after big cats. Their police special forces are called the Tigers, complete with T-shirts printed in English, and dramatic pictures of roaring tigers. The latest development worrying Nato in the country is the activities of the Lions, a semi-official Macedonian paramilitary unit that has been active in the Albanian-dominated Tetovo area.

In the big cat house of Skopje zoo, the crowds were disappointed. It was a hot day, and the lions and solitary tiger were sleeping.

Back at the monkey house, where the electricity appeared to have failed, a chimpanzee loomed out of a pitch black cage clapping its hands and gesturing for visitors to open the door to its outside cage. There was not an attendant in sight, anywhere in the zoo, apart from the ticket booth.

Being sent to a zoo is something of a lottery for an animal. It might end up in a zoo with the money to look after its animals, or it might be sent to one with no resources. There are much worse zoos than Skopje's: most of the enclosures are comparatively large, and the animals can wander about. In some zoos, the animals can barely stand up.

But Western efforts to improve the lot of animals in captivity around the world have been fraught with problems. Animal rights groups launched a massive campaign to have the ugly spectacle of bear dancing banned in Turkey. It was successful, and bears, their teeth and claws pulled out, led on a chain, disappeared from the streets. But once the bears were no longer a commercial investment, several were just left to starve to death.