Oblivious to the snow and the temperature of minus seven Celsius, sea lion Khan eagerly awaits his fishy lunch, prepared by his caretaker, Dragan Trajkovski.
“He gets different sorts of fish each day but mackerel is his favourite,” Trajkovski says.
“He arrived in 2015. He is a Californian sea lion, so his metabolism adjusts remarkably well to the differences in temperature in Skopje over the year, especially to the hot summers.”
Each time his keeper stops to explain something to this reporter, Khan hoots, or does whatever sea lions do when making a sound, to remind him that his meal is not over yet.
Trajkovski calls it “gratifying” to work with “this highly intelligent animal”, adding: “Ever since he arrived from Zagreb Zoo, we have created a strong bond, which is great, as I have to keep him occupied each day with something new and play with him, so he does not get bored.”
Khan and bunch of other animals that have recently resettled Skopje Zoo after being rescued or brought from other zoos, have helped the once forgotten and dying zoo make an unexpected comeback.
Founded in 1926 and expanded to its current size in the 1960s, during the golden days of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia, Skopje Zoo suffered a slow and painful process of decay during the post-communist 1990s and 2000s.
The general air of negligence kept potential visitors at bay. Poorly fed and maintained animals, like the elephant, the lions, the giraffe and the sea lions, started dying off.
The zoo’s one chimp became so depressed that he had to be sent off to Holland to recover.
Increasingly, the zoo was only mentioned when animal rights activists or journalists complained about its horrifying state.
But things started shifting for the better a few years ago, when the management started calling for private companies to donate or sponsor certain animals and their homes.
Many answered the call and one by one, the decaying animal habitats underwent renovation or rebuilding from the ground up, to ensure better conditions and more space for their inhabitants.
Animal experts from partnering zoos across Europe started to help as well, training the keepers and, once they had more confidence in the zoo’s future, donating new animals.
Matters are still far from ideal, but Macedonian children and their parents have clearly recognized the effort, and have started returning to the city’s once overlooked landmark.
The first big PR hit came a few years ago, when the zoo announced the arrival of a group of lemurs. Drawn by the popularity of the animated movie Madagascar, thousands of children flocked to see these lively animals in person.
As the menagerie got bigger, popular interest expanded further and the new management that took over last year has had the task of maintaining this upturn and the fascination of youngsters.
Last year, visitors rushed to see the first albino kangaroo born in the zoo, a rarity that gained it regional and international publicity.
In the autumn, a set of photos that showed the zoo’s recently arrived giraffe behaving affectionately with its keeper went viral overnight.
In September, a record 12,000 people attended the arrival of two new elephants, Dunja and Daela, from Belgium.
“Dunja is an Asian elephant and Daela is an African elephant. They have had a very stressful life, were captured in the wilderness and were together for some 25 years, working as circus animals,” says Bojan Gligorovski, one of the four keepers tasked with caring for them.
“They are here, so to speak, to retire and rehabilitate, so we try to give them as carefree an environment as possible,” he adds.
Like with the rest of the animals, the diet for the elephants must be diverse, ranging from hay to peanut butter, which they really like, explains Viktor Vancevski, his colleague.
Unlike the sea lion, in winter, the elephants must be kept inside at a warm temperature in their newly built habitat.
They are groomed and exercised daily. Once in a while, when the temperatures allow, they are released outside in the big yard.
“We slowly adapt to them and they to us. But they have had a hard life and we have to take it one step at a time. That’s why we constantly remind visitors to give them some space and admire them from a distance,” Trajkovski says.
The giraffe, the elephants, the sea lion and more than 400 other animals in the zoo last year attracted a record number of visitors.
During July and August, traditionally slower months for the zoo due to the heat and the holidays, some 15,000 to 20,000 people visited weekly.
But in September, October and November, numbers rise. At some points, the zoo was selling as many as 40,000 tickets a week.
To keep up the numbers, the zoo organizes regular educational events featuring local pop stars and keepers on the stage.
The latest was the “New Year zoo fairy tale”, staged during the Christmas-New Year holidays, which drew thousands of youngsters.
“We have now become the most visited public institution in the country,” Tina Mickovska, the woman in charge of the zoo’s PR says, confidently.
She says the key to success has been bringing people closer to happenings and animals in the zoo.
“People like to get to know the animals, their habits and personalities, their names and the new arrivals. In the past, these were not publicized,” Mickovska notes.
This year, the zoo has even more ambitious plans, Mickovska explains.
In spring, they expect the arrival of the flamingos and penguins whose habitats are being prepared.
They will be joined by zebras and antelopes, arriving soon from friendly zoos.
A particularly emotional event is the expected comeback of the chimpanzee, Koko.
Once an icon of the zoo, he has spent several years undergoing rehabilitation in The Netherlands after succumbing to depression and loneliness in Skopje.
“Koko’s rehabilitation in The Netherlands is going well and we eagerly await his comeback – this time with friends. We are preparing a habitat that matches world standards,” Mickovska says.
As Macedonia this year awaits an invitation to finally start EU accession talks, the zoo keepers and the managerial team hope this year will also see their equally long-awaited acceptance as full members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, EAZA.
“It is just like EU membership,” quips Mickovska.
“We will have to undergo thorough inspections and make corrections to meet standards but, once we are in, we will reap the benefits of greater cooperation, more money and healthier animals,” she says. “We may even be able to release some animals into the wild, like two of our four bears, for example.”
Keeper Dragan Trajkovski’s hopes are somewhat more modest.
As the first visitors of the day arrive at the snow-covered zoo, hoping for a glimpse of his cheerful sea lion, he hopes that Khan will soon get a partner – “and why not a female one?” he asks.