Meet the Tiger King of Ukraine: How private zoo owner stared down Russian special forces soldiers

Meet the Tiger King of Ukraine: How private zoo owner stared down Russian special forces soldiers

Soccer News

Despite having a platoon of elite Russian special forces camped right outside his front door, Alexi Kosenko says he showed them ‘no fear and no respect’ as he subjected the soldiers to blistering daily rants for daring to invade his beloved country.

‘I called them pigs, I called them dogs, I told them to foff home,’ grins the 49-year-old.

His neighbours feared that any day the Russians would have enough of his wild antics and simply kill him, as they had done with other Ukrainians who had shown such open dissent.

At one point, Alexi’s defiance saw him staring down the barrel of a Russian tank. But still here he stands today, alive and well, without even a scratch from the invaders.

Why this may be the case soon becomes obvious when Alexi introduces us to his white Bengal tiger. Dara, an 11-month-old cub reared by Alexi from birth, playfully wrestles with his owner in her cage at the private zoo.

Alexi Kosenko pictured with his white Bengal tiger cub, Dara. The 11-month-old cub reared by Alexi from birth playfully wrestles with his owner in her cage at the private zoo

Alexi said the misguided invaders had barged their way in to search his property for Ukrainian forces, and were taken aback when he showed him Dara and a pet Lynx called Simba

Walking around the cages on the sprawling estate evokes images from the hit Netflix show Tiger King. Certainly, Alexi appears to be cut from the same cloth as some of that show’s wild characters.

The rental property developer has spent the last eight years building his sanctuary in the rural village of Shybene. It is down the road from the bombed-out town of Boradyanka where there was fierce fighting during Putin’s botched invasion to conquer the capital Kyiv 40 miles away.

Surrounded by pine trees and with its own fishing lake and meadow, it is an idyllic spot. Perhaps the invading Russian soldiers thought so too – until they met the indomitable Mr Kosenko.

‘I showed them no fear and no respect,’ he declares triumphantly. ‘I said: “Who do you think you are? Why are you here?” They said they were hunting for Nazis and I said, “you guys are lost. There is nothing here but dachas (summer cottages) and old people.”‘

Alexi said: ‘Dara was crying all the time…All of the animals were so scared. The ground was shaking from the shelling and the explosions. I was worried they would all have heart attacks’

Alexi – pictured with food for Dara, his Bengal tiger cub – spent the two-month occupation holed up at his dacha in Shybene with his wife and five children

Alexi said the misguided invaders had barged their way in to search his property for Ukrainian forces, and were taken aback when he showed him Dara and a pet Lynx called Simba.

‘They were concerned,’ he says, throwing back his head with a throaty laugh. ‘They were saying, “what is the purpose of this?” They were asking about how much food she eats.’

He explains Dara chomps through a staggering 11lbs of meat each day and Simba needs around 4lbs. Then there are Alexi’s 350 other animals that need looking after, including a noisy macaque called Bob, deer, rhea and peacocks.

The businessman, from Kyiv, spent the two-month occupation holed up at his dacha in Shybene with his wife and five children. But as the shells and bullets flew overhead, his biggest concern was for the safety of his dear animals on the estate.

Alexi stared down the barrel of a Russian tank in his desperation to keep his animals fed during the weeks of Russian occupation. Pictured, Dara the tiger cub

‘Dara was crying all the time,’ he says. ‘All of the animals were so scared. The ground was shaking from the shelling and the explosions. I was worried they would all have heart attacks.’

Soldiers formed a ring of steel around the village and refused to let anyone out. Alexi had back-up generators to keep his freezers full of cow legs for Dara working during power cuts. But as the occupation reached its second month, he was rapidly running out of food.

He says: ‘I was screaming at the Russians. I said my animals were going to starve. I was going out on my quad bike to the checkpoints and getting into arguments with them.’

The sanctuary is alongside a small fishing lake, with neighbouring dachas which were frequently raided by the Russians

As he chain-smoked cigarettes and knocked back shots of strong. home-made vodka, Alexi revealed Russian troops forced him to strip down to his underwear one night as temperatures plunged below minus eight celsius. He had ridden out once more to a checkpoint at the edge of the village with his ten-year-old son when 20 troops surrounded them.

He says: ‘They had all their gear and their guns out pointing them at me. I told them, ‘I do not surrender to you and if you want to kill me then do it, but not in front of my son.’

‘They took my son into one of their military vehicles. So I said, ‘OK then, if there are any men among you then let’s go to the side and we will settle this like men – fist on fist.’

Alexi pictured with a local deer he rescued and hand reared when she was abandoned by her mother

After a freezing 30-minute stand-off – still in his pants – the troops finally let him and his son go. But they stole the quad bike and took away his mobile phone. The invaders also came and snatched his black Mitsubishi Colt SUV, which he later found with the letter V painted on it – the symbol used on all Russian military vehicles during Putin’s push for Kyiv.

As the occupation wore on, Alexi said he had to kill two of his goats to feed Dara. Then he took another trip out to the checkpoints to plead for mercy for his hungry animals.

‘I was arguing with the soldiers and then I heard this loud engine sound,’ he recalls.

‘I saw this tank emerge from behind a building and stop right in front of me. Then the turret started moving. It swung round and it was pointing right at me. My palms were sweating and my heart was beating so fast. I was saying ‘don’t you see, my animals need food’ but the soldiers thought I was a crazy man. They just told me to go away.

Pictured: Simba the Lynx. As the occupation wore on, Alexi said he had to kill two of his goats to feed Dara

There are Alexi’s 350 other animals that need looking after, including a noisy macaque called Bob (pictured), deer, rhea and peacocks

‘My neighbours were saying to me ‘Alexi you are going to get yourself killed if you keep going on like this’ but I didn’t care. This is my country. I go wherever I want to go and do whatever I want to do. Fthese pigs who come here and tell me what to do in my own country.’

Finally, salvation came when Ukraine’s military pushed the Russian forces into a humiliating retreat last month. The village was liberated and Alexi could breathe a sigh of relief.

His family have since fled to Belarus and intend to head to Poland to see out the war. But Alexi is busy dreaming up grand plans for the future of his dacha.

‘Who knows? Maybe I will get another tiger now,’ he laughs.

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