A Russian accused of looting a raccoon and a llama from a Ukrainian zoo as soldiers hurriedly pulled out of the Kherson region has responded after footage of the incident went viral online.
Oleg Zubkov had been widely accused of stealing after bizarre footage of him working with Russian troops to load a llama into the back of a van was shared by a Ukrainian official who accused him of theft.
The clip, which did not identify Zubkov by name, also showed him chasing a hissing raccoon around its enclosure before he managed to grab the animal by its tail.
Newsweek identified Zubkov, who owns his own wildlife park in Crimea, and tracked him down to question him about the incident. He insisted he was simply acting on official orders to save the animals from the war-torn region and that they will be returned when it is safe to do so.
They are currently being kept at his site, the Taigan Lion Park, he said.
The video, which was tweeted by Anton Gerashchenko—an adviser to the minister of internal affairs of Ukraine—was uploaded on Sunday; by Tuesday, it had already been viewed almost 400,000 times.
He captioned the footage: “While retreating from Kherson Russians stole animals from the local zoo. A stolen racoon [sic] caused the most talk – on the video it is fighting with all his strength.”
Twitter users were baffled by the scenes. As the video was shared thousands of times, many queried what the army actually planned to do with the creatures that had been rounded up.
As initially reported by Newsweek, some found the situation amusing and mocked up comical memes. Some branded the troops cruel, some said it was part of a widespread campaign of looting, and others claimed they might need the animals for food.
Some Twitter users recognized Zubkov from the footage shared by the Ukrainian minister. One alleged he had taken the animals “without the Kherson zookeeper’s desire or permission.”
After Newsweek made contact with Zubkov, he replied via email in order to address the incident. A translation of his comment read: “Animals from Kherson were taken out by order of the acting governor of the Kherson region… Now all the animals are in the Taigan Lion Park and are undergoing veterinary quarantine.
“After the stabilization of the situation in Kherson and in the presence of the requirements of the authorities of Kherson, the animals will be returned to the Kherson Zoo.”
He said he had made his own films showing the animals he transported and had uploaded the footage to a YouTube channel about his lion park called ‘Taigan Tatyana Aleksagina.’ He himself usually posts on his own YouTube channel ‘Oleg Zubkov Lionman,’ which features numerous videos of him playing with lions in their enclosures.
Zubkov showed Newsweek an official document that ordered him to take the animals. A translation of the text, which was signed by the Kremlin-installed governor, Vladimir Saldo, said the order was made “in alignment with the evacuation plan for citizens, valuables and properties in Kherson.”
Dated November 3, it went on to add that the “military chief for Kherson must secure safe evacuation of animals from the Kherson zoo… [and] the executive order must be carried from the moment it is signed.”
Newsweek has reached out to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense for comment.