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How a Ukrainian zoo persuaded its runaway chimpanzee to return home — with help from a raincoat and a bicycle

“It wasn’t difficult to convince her. All that’s needed is negotiations,” said the Kharkiv zookeeper who helped persuade the viral star Chichi to return home.
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KYIV, Ukraine — The risks of wandering in war-torn Kharkiv alone did not seem to faze Chichi, the runaway chimpanzee whose escapades this week have made her famous on social media. It was not until a timely intervention from the heavens in the form of rain that her Ukrainian zookeepers were able to persuade her to return home — with a little help from a raincoat and a bicycle.

The 13-year-old female chimpanzee escaped from Kharkiv Zoo on Monday, with zookeepers tracking her down about two hours later in the northeastern city’s Freedom Square, not far away.

Video shows Chichi eventually being persuaded to put on a yellow hooded rain jacket, before being returned home perched on a bicycle, after briefly roaming through Ukraine's second largest city.

Videos of the incident have been shared widely, offering both a rare moment of levity in the thick of Russia's war and an insight into the plight of animals in Ukraine whose homes have also come under bombardment.

“Chimpanzees are highly intellectual creatures, it wasn’t difficult to her to break the fence and leave,” Victoria Kozyreva, the zookeeper at Kharkiv Zoo who helped persuade Chichi to return home, told NBC News on Wednesday. "After I heard that she left, I followed her to the square and began to talk to her."

Zookeeper Victoria Kozyreva helps Chichi put on a rain jacket before wheeling her back to the zoo.
Zookeeper Victoria Kozyreva helps Chichi put on a rain jacket before wheeling her back to the zoo. @place_kh

Kozyreva, who has known Chichi since the primate's childhood, can be seen approaching her and helping her put on the yellow jacket in the video. It took careful negotiations, she said, to overcome the chimp's initial skepticism.

"It wasn’t difficult to convince her. All that's needed is negotiations,” the 45-year-old zookeeper said. "There was rain. I talked to her and invited with my jacket, helped to put it on and gave her a hug."

Chichi, who once resided at the Feldman Ecopark in the city’s northern suburbs, was relocated to Kharkiv Zoo after heavy fighting in early March, shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country. The ecopark has since permanently closed due to the conflict, which has seen Kharkiv continue to face deadly shelling.

Chichi's escape from her enclosure at Kharkiv Zoo was likely made easier by the fact that she used to be kept behind an electric fence at her home before the war, said Serhii Kuvshar, who was Chichi’s caretaker at the ecopark and has also known her since childhood.

Chichi during happier times at Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv.
Chichi during happier times at Feldman Ecopark in Kharkiv. Courtesy of Feldman Ecopark

He speculated that Chichi may have escaped from her enclosure because she was bored, given the lack of recent attention from a public understandably distracted by their own shattered lives.

"They are fed up and bored to see zookeepers only," Kuvshar said of chimpanzees in Ukraine. "They do like to boast in front of the people about what they can do, they like when people admire them, it is a great joy for them to communicate with people," he said.

Around 4,000 animals from the ecopark were evacuated to other sanctuaries across Ukraine at the beginning of the invasion, according to the zoo. Six zoo personnel were killed in the shelling, it said.

While Chichi's adventure ended happily, Kozyreva said many of the primates were suffering due to the war.

“All of them have PTSD now, they experienced real hell, they saw how their relatives died," she said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. "They understand everything."

Daryna Mayer reported from Kyiv, Rhoda Kwan reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Matteo Moschella reported from London.