Embattled Lion Park Owner Arrested In Crimea

A district court in Russia-controlled Crimea has jailed an embattled safari park owner in connection with his failure to appear for a court proceeding related to a lion biting a park visitor.

The Belohorsk District Court ordered on February 3 that Oleh Zubkov, the owner of the Taigan lion park, should be jailed for two months.

The decision came in part due to concerns that Zubkov would flee abroad, the Crimean press service told the Crimea Desk of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.

The Crimea Desk reported that Zubkov — who supported Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 but has since been in conflict with the Russia-installed authorities — was handcuffed and taken to a police station.

His lawyers have said they are seeking his prompt release.

Zubkov has said he has been called for hundreds of court hearings related to his operation of the park since Russia’s occupation of the peninsula. He has claimed in the past that he has not been able to draw up documents for his properties, resulting in the closure of the 32-hectare park to visitors in 2015.

The Taigon lion park is situated in the city of Belohorsk on an abandoned Soviet military base that Zubkov purchased in 2006, and is touted as the largest breeding ground for lions and other predator animals in Europe.

It boasts approximately 80 lions and 50 tigers, among other animals.

WATCH: Crimean Safari Park Fights For Survival

His latest run-in with the courts resulted from a lawsuit stemming from a July 2018 incident in which a lion bit a visitor who was getting a picture taken while on the park’s Walk With The Lions trail. In April, the Belohorsk District Court banned the trail, which allowed guests to “chat with lions without barriers.”

The victim, Olha Solimina, told Crimea 24 television at the time that the lion “dragged me like a doll” and that she had said “goodbye to life.” The next thing she remembered, she was standing and Zubkov was bandaging a bleeding wound, after which she was urgently taken to the park medical station.

“I asked that the ambulance or police not be called,” she told the television outlet.

She has since said that Zubkov was nearby, but “couldn’t calm his animals down right away.”

Zubkov has acknowledged that a lion bit Solimina, claiming that she was drunk and had ruffled the animal’s mane. He said he immediately stopped the lion and she was treated by a park doctor for a deep puncture wound to her hand.

An investigation by the consumer-protection agency Rospotrebnadzor did not find any violations, Zubkov told RFE/RL in August.

The Taigon park once attracted 500,000 visitors a year, but has struggled since Russia’s 2014 annexation. In a 2016 video shot by RFE/RL, Zubkov said that he looked back fondly on the days when he — a Russian — could live in Crimea under Ukraine and build safari parks.

“Unfortunately, those days have passed,” he said.

Zubkov’s jail sentence comes after a public spat with Sergei Askenov, the Russia-imposed head of Crimea, that ended in a compromise.

On his VK page on February 3, Askenov said he had “no right to interfere” in the court’s activities, but offered “to personally guarantee” that Zubkov would appear for future court appearance if he were released from jail.

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