Initial reports suggesting "all" of the animals (around 300) drowned did not account for some animals that had previously been transferred to the care of zoo workers. The exact number of animals killed is unclear, but Russian claims denying that any animal died — or that no zoo existed in the first place — are false.
Early on the morning of June 6, 2023, at around the time residents reported hearing explosions, the Nova Kakhovka Dam in the Kherson region of Ukraine failed, leading to catastrophic flooding in several downstream towns and cities. Ukrainian authorities have blamed Russia for the collapse. Russian authorities have denied involvement, blaming Kyiv.
The city of Nova Kakhovka, directly below the dam, experienced extreme flooding shortly after its failure. As images of the town's administrative center under several feet of water went viral, claims soon emerged that a large portion of a local zoo's animal population had perished in the floodwaters.
These reports concern "a recreation complex for children and adults" named Kazkova Dibrova — which roughly translates to Fairytale Dibrova — that contained, along with sculptures and other attractions, a small zoo. On the morning of the dam's failure, the Facebook page of that park reported the death of its animal population:
This morning, the recreation complex "Kazkova Dibrova" was completely flooded with water after the explosion of the Russian Kakhovskaya HPP. About 300 animals that our Novokakhov residents knew and loved died.
Monkeys Anfisa and Charlik, pony Malysh, donkey Osya, raccoons Mishka, Lolya, Dinka, parrot Venya, crow Roma, marmots, Cameroonian goats, sheep, parrots, guinea pigs, ferrets and many other small pets of ours. Only a couple of swans and ducks survived. A small swan chick, born only 5 days ago, also died. Already at 6 in the morning, when Dibrova's workers arrived, everything was flooded with water.
A video shared on Telegram appeared to show the park as workers arrived that morning. While Snopes can verify that these videos showed the entrance of the Kazkova Dibrova, we cannot independently confirm the time when the video was filmed:
As viral headlines reported that "300 zoo animals drown in floodwaters," Russian media was quick to deny any aspect of the claim whatsoever, asserting in the English language version of the state-owned news agency TASS that the story couldn't be true because there was no zoo in the town:
Ukrainian media reports about animals who were killed by a flood at a zoo in the city of Novaya Kakhovka are untrue, because the city has no zoo at all, a spokesperson for the city's emergencies services has told TASS.
"Earlier, the Ukrainian media reported that beavers, swans and dogs were killed in Novaya Kakhovka. Some media said that a zoo with around 300 animals was allegedly flooded," the spokesperson said. "No animals were killed, because our city has no zoo."
As tourist guides and years of Instagram and other social media posts predating the war can attest, Kazkova Dibrova is a real place with a real zoo that was, indeed, a home to the animals described in the zoo's viral Facebook post. The park has been around since 1992, and is only meters away from the administrative center that flooded in the immediate wake of the dam collapse.
(Bing Maps / Snopes)
Russian language editions of TASS later reported a slightly narrower denial that accepted the existence of a zoo in Novo Kakhovka (via Google Translate):
All animals from the zoo in the city of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region were taken out last year, Mayor Vladimir Leontiev told reporters.
"Even last year, all the animals from the Kazkova Dibrova Zoo were evacuated and transported, there was no one left, not a single animal. Volunteers took custody of these animals," he said.
According to a TASS correspondent, now it is impossible to get to the place where the zoo was previously located due to the fact that it is flooded. This area is cordoned off for security purposes.
Employees and volunteers associated with the zoo deny that narrative, but they did state that their earlier assertion that all the animals perished failed to account for the fact that some animals had been in the care of volunteers. As explained on the park's Facebook page:
The information on the animals of Kazkova Dibrova, which were saved, is being clarified. Yesterday, the workers, being in a state of shock, gave me inaccurate information. Some animals were not on the territory of Dibrova, but were at home [with a volunteer] That's why they stayed alive! Our favorite parrot Venya, flying squirrels, ferrets, parrots, chinchillas and guinea pigs are protected from the flood.
Volunteers had been working to keep many of the animals alive during the war. "A year back, we all raised funds as a group to buy feed for the year. Farmers, entrepreneurs, and many people helped by bringing vegetables and sending money to help animals," the park wrote on Facebook. Two volunteers, according to the zoo, had been risking their lives and taken fire in an effort to feed the animals as fighting intensified.
Some animals were, indeed, brought to zoo employees' homes during the winter, but — the zoo said —- these had been returned to the park. "Dibrova survived a terrible winter without light and heating," the park's Facebook page wrote, explaining that their park director "took home all the warm-loving animals" before they were "returned back to Dibrova."
The assertion that there were no animals at all present at the zoo at the time of the flooding is hard to support. For one thing, one of the earliest viral images of post-dam-collapse flooding showed two swans — matching the description swans from the zoo next door — swimming in front of the Novo Khakovka administrative center:
The struggle posed by mines and shelling made the full-scale evacuation of all the animals impossible, zoo officials said. These assertions are supported by posts on Facebook by the zoo in late 2022.
Because Kazkova Dibrova is a zoo in the city of Nova Kakhovka and because at least a large portion of animals were at that zoo at the time of the catastrophic flooding, the claim that many if not most of the animals died at a zoo following the dam's failure are "True."