KIEV, Ukraine -- A government investigation into numerous deaths at the Kyiv Zoo, recognized as one of the world’s worst, has been criticized by animal rights activists as a whitewash.
The investigation, which also looked into alleged financial irregularities, absolved the zoo’s director, Svitlana Berzina, and the zoo administration of wrongdoing.
Several prominent members of the zoo industry refused to sign the investigation report, compiled by an expert commission for the Ministry of Environmental Protection, as they said it was an attempt to hush up zoo management’s responsibility for the high number of animal deaths.
Meanwhile, zoo deaths continue to mount. Johnny the chimpanzee died on Sept. 1, just three days after arriving at the zoo. Three male penguins died on Sept. 4. The death toll this year at the zoo already includes eight large animals: an elephant, a tiger, a giraffe, a camel, a zebra, a bear, a bison and an armadillo.
Critics attribute the deaths to poor living conditions, malnutrition and mismanagement. Zoo management denies the claims.
The commission was set up in June after widespread accusations of kickbacks and a spate of animal deaths. Several ministry officials, other heads of Ukrainian zoos and animal rights activists were included. Several experts refused to sign the report and cried foul over the violations they witnessed.
“According to what we found out, animals died from poor nourishment, poor living conditions and negligence,” said Tetyana Tymochko, deputy head of the Ukrainian Ecological League, an animal rights organization, and a member of the investigative commission. She says the commission was a setup, and the conclusions of critical members were not taken into account.
Volodymyr Tolkachov, the head of Mykolayiv Zoo and another commission member, said the reason for the horrifying conditions at Kyiv Zoo is unprofessional management. “A veterinarian was responsible for setting the diet for the elephant [that died], but it should be a diet technician.
The people who decide the animals’ menu do not have any education in that field whatsoever. Most of the animal keepers are not qualified either.
For example, animals are often left sleeping on a bare cement floor or occupy tiny cages,” Tolkachov said.
Experts and former zoo workers say that up to 100 employees have been fired or left due to poor working conditions in the last year.
Questions have long been raised over zoo director Svitlana Berzina’s qualifications. She does not have training as a veterinarian or zoo technician, critical for her work.
She was dismissed in June by Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky, but has been back at work since July 2.
She said the accusations are groundless. “The zoo had 14 investigations in 2010. Trust me, if any of them would have found any violation, I wouldn’t be occupying my post,” she told the Kyiv Post.
Previously she had claimed that her rivals had poisoned some of the animals in a bid to get her fired.
However, while the police did not find any poison in the dead animal bodies, the Kyiv prosecutor is backing the ministry’s report. “According to experts who conducted the [elephant] autopsy in the Kyiv Zoo, the death might have been caused by cyanide.
However, the case is being investigated by police in Shevchenkivsky district and [its findings] are due by the end of September,” said Myroslava Mushka, a spokeswoman for the Kyiv prosecutor. According to her, their investigation did not reveal any violations of animal living conditions and food.
But animal rights activists said it appears the authorities are doing everything to keep Berzina in her post and silence critics. “As in many other spheres in Ukraine, the whole situation around Kyiv zoo has shown once again that investigations can be forged, critics ignored and the ‘right’ people kept in their positions if there is political will to do so,” said Sergiy Hrihoryiv, head of the Help Zoo activists’ organization, who was fired from the zoo last year after publicly criticizing the animals’ poor living conditions.
Roman Slysarchuk, deputy head of the nature reserve department at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, denies that the commission covered up any violations at the zoo.
“Some members of the commission did not sign the investigation report, but others did,” he said. However, according to press service of the ministry, the report has not been released yet, as all members’ signatures are required.
City officials also deny hushing up the scandal. “We have invited a European expert, who has already arrived. He will observe Kyiv zoo for a couple of days and give us his professional opinion,” said Oleksandr Popov, first deputy head of city administration.
The government-hired expert, Koen Brouwer, of Maguari-One Zoo Consultants S.L. consultancy, backed Berzina as well. “I am confident in her team and I am quite sure in couple of years we can make Kyiv zoo one of the best in Europe,” he told Kyiv Post on Sept. 9.
Anatoliy Holubchenko, deputy head of the city administration, said on Sept. 9 that Berzina will keep her job.“We believe she is able to solve many problems of the zoo…We also have to take into account that problems of Kyiv zoo started before her appointment in 2008. She inherited many problems,” he said.
He said lack of financing is at the root of most of them. “In 2009 zoo received only Hr 1 million from state budget while it needed Hr 10 million.”
While authorities struggle to deal with previous zoo scandals a new one is brewing connected with the recent animal deaths.
According to Berzina, the Kyiv zoo head, the penguins died from an infectious disease they were suffering from since they arrived at the zoo back in 2004. “We bought 14 penguins, and all of them have died except for one female,” she said.
As for Johnny the chimpanzee, she said he was in quarantine as a newcomer and died from kidney failure. “He was born with a poor heart, poor liver and poor kidneys,” she said.
But why did the zoo buy an ill animal? Animal rights activists said they have an explanation – to embezzle money. “According to our sources, the chimpanzee did not cross the Ukrainian border in August, when he was allegedly brought to Kyiv,” said Tymochko from the Ukrainian Ecological League. “We suspect he was either smuggled or bought illegally from a circus.”
Tymochko also says the zoo administration might be concealing mass deaths of exotic birds, which have disappeared from the zoo in the past year.
Oleksandr Stetsenko, a spokesman for the zoo, said the chimpanzee was brought from a European zoo, which he couldn’t name because of the contract.
“The animal seemed healthy, and he died when our veterinarians were examining his condition,” he said. He declined to comment on the birds, saying he needed time to gather information.