UF veterinary college hosts art auction to benefit Ukraine zoos

On anniversary of Feb. 24 Russian invasion, fundraiser is outlet for concern

Published: February 23, 2023
Photo by Sophia Buoniconti
Victoria Voronovich, a University of Florida veterinary student, helped organize an art auction to support zoos in Ukraine. This image of a Florida manatee is by photographer Adam McCahill.

Twelve months since she awoke to news of Russia's deadly offensive in the country from which her grandparents fled during World War II, Michigan native Victoria Voronovich remains worried about the safety of her extended family in Ukraine.

"It's absolutely wild to think that this war has been going on for a year," said Voronovich, a 25-year-old veterinary student at the University of Florida. "I'm from just outside Detroit, which has one of the largest Ukrainian communities in America."

Seeking an outlet for her concerns, Voronovich teamed with classmates at the suggestion of Dr. Mike Walsh, a clinical associate professor in aquatic animal health, to organize an art auction to benefit Ukrainian zoos. "He's a big name in the field," Voronovich said of Walsh. "We got together some other students who have family from Ukraine and decided to raise money for the zoos there, based on their need — food, supplies and medical care — and to support zoo caretakers and their immediate families."

The silent auction, which opened on Jan. 30, features wildlife-inspired sculptures, original photography, paintings and other works by students, locals and nationally known artists such as National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore; veterinarian and photographer Dr. Rick Beldegreen; illustrator Samara King; Florida nature photographer John Moran; natural world illustrator Elizabeth Bonert; and equine artist Fred Stone

Bids are private, with each auction item going to the highest bidder at the time the event ends. Originally slated to close Feb. 28, the auction is being extended into March; an end date has not been set. Winners will be notified via email. All proceeds will be donated to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), which will distribute the funds among Ukraine's 10 or so zoos. "Any contribution that we can raise will be significant and put to use," Voronovich said.

Walsh, head of the university's marine animal rescue program, is an amateur sculptor. For the auction, he curated some of the artists and donated one of his creations, a bronze gorilla bust.

In brief

The fundraiser is not a political statement, he said — it's about helping animals. "If we're going to teach students how to be advocates for animals and their clients, this is a great way to do it," Walsh reasoned. "The most important thing we can pass on to students is the strong sense of advocacy for others, no matter the species or how difficult or challenging their needs. ... It is a higher calling." 

Inside Ukraine's zoos

There's no shortage of need — or innovation. With little or intermittent access to power, caretakers at the Kyiv Zoo say they've struggled to keep animals warm in winter temperatures, often resorting to building wood fires and illuminating their enclosures with flashlights. In response to their plight, a team at the Berlin Zoo in Germany recently donated two generators. 

During the EAZA annual conference in October, Volodymyr Topchy, president of the Association of Zoos in Ukraine, expressed gratitude for the support and told of its impact. 

Ukraine's zoos have had to be innovative since the invasion, said Topchy, who is director of the Mykolaiv Zoo in southern Ukraine, near the Black Sea. Through an English-language interpreter, he spoke of how a shortage of food and water, fuel, heat and medicines are impacting the country, including its zoos.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Mike Walsh
Dr. Mike Walsh's gorilla bust in bronze is part of his "Tear Series for Endangered Animals."

With inflation up and ticket sales next to nil, zoos are struggling, Topchy said.

"Since February 2022, the Ukrainian zoos have been in a permanent high-risk sector," he said. "… All our zoo members, without exceptions, have participated in evacuations. They've taken care of housing animals from zoos, from parts of the country where there are hostilities. We have all distributed and used the financial assistance. We need your help; the work continues.”

The EAZA has coordinated relief funds for Ukrainian zoos since the war's early days, when bombing killed animals and destroyed enclosures at Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv, 40 miles from the Russian border, and two workers were shot dead. Images from the zoo's Facebook page show facilities in shambles.

Stressed and hungry, many animals at Feldman Ecopark were evacuated to zoos outside of the war zone. Some that weren't transferred were euthanized, including big cats. A post on June 30 tells of evacuations amid Russian bombardments: “The flights were very close to our camel enclosures, they were very scared, dehydrated and many injured. Removing stressed large animals from a dangerous territory is a difficult task, and when the shelling begins during an evacuation process, the difficulty becomes tenfold.”

Conditions at the zoo have improved little since. "Our animals in different regions of Ukraine are waiting for us to be able to restore enclosures and return them home," reads a post on Feb. 10.

EAZA has Feldman Ecopark on its list of Ukrainian zoos receiving aid from the association. "Funds are being allocated on the basis of need according to the requests we receive from zoos, and are distributed to recipients through channels subject to reasonable due diligence," reads a statement on the EAZA website. "A full report on the fund and its use of donations to support Ukrainian zoos will be issued in due course."

May 25 update: The art auction raised more than $4,900 for zoos in Ukraine.

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