Who or what is killing animals at the Kiev zoo?

KIEV, Ukraine — Is something, or someone, killing the animals at the Kiev Zoo?

In the past few weeks, three animals have met their demise. First, on April 26, Boy, a 39-year-old Indian elephant and one of the zoo’s star attractions, passed away suddenly. Exactly one month later, Maya, a white camel, expired. Then last week a bison died. Two yaks fell ill, but were saved by veterinarians.

The recent death toll is actually considerably higher, animal rights activists say: Seven animals have in fact died in the last six months. In 2008, according to the Ukrainian newspaper Today, the zoo lost a staggering 51 animals, including two African lions, an Amur tiger, a brown bear and various primates.

On Tuesday, a medical commission announced that Boy had died from toxic shock, caused by poisioning.

Zoo authorities have offered a sinister and enigmatic story, blaming an unidentified serial poisoner — possibly a 40-something man “with dark hair and an earring” who they say was seen lurking around the animals’ cages. Suspicious potatoes were found in the camels’ enclosure.

The true culprit so far remains a mystery. All the same, the deaths have unleashed a flurry of accusations and counter-accusations. Ultimately the bulk of condemnation has been directed at Kiev’s idiosyncratic and highly-controversial mayor, Leonid Chenovetsky.

Chenovetsky has gained notoriety in the Ukrainian capital for bizarre behavior, as well as a perception that his administration is unresponsive to the population’s needs. Among other stunts, he once called a press conference to perform athletic exercises — answering questions in a Speedo — in order to demonstrate that he was of sound mind and body. (His nickname is “Kosmos,” playing on his reputation for otherworldly pronouncements and actions.)

Critics say that Chenovetsky appointed a zoo administration that is unqualified and treats the animals negligently. Their targets include Zoo Director Svitlana Berzina, who was temporarily suspended from her post after the most recent animal death. Journalist Andriy Kapustin called the zoo a “concentration camp." The animals died, he wrote, because the conditions of their captivity are substandard, and often, because of the ignorance of their keepers, they are fed the wrong kinds of food.

“Camels are known to be extremely resilient,” Kapustin wrote in a recent article, referring to the deceased Maya. “And they are capable of surviving the most difficult conditions in the Mongolian, African or Australian deserts.”

“But it seems that the conditions in the Kiev Zoo are even more extreme,” he added.

Animal rights activist Sergiy Hrihoryiv, who once worked at the zoo and now runs a website dedicated to documenting the park’s difficulties, says that under Berzina the zoo has shrunk by nearly half in terms of staff and animals. Moreover, it has lost close to one-fifth of its species.

Others, while recognizing that the zoo is poorly managed, say that the causes could be more natural.

“The fact is that animals, like humans, die,” said Vladimir Topchy, head of the Ukrainian Zoo Association.

Kiev’s zoo, like other parks throughout the former Soviet Union, labors under an animal population that in many cases dates from the Soviet Union. Boy was close to the median age for male Indian elephants in captivity — 47 years. A new Indian elephant can cost $200,000 — far beyond the means of the cash-strapped facilities, where skilled workers can earn as little as 1,000 Ukrainian hryvnias ($125) per month.

“The bison that died was 26 years old — that’s not a grandmother but a great-grandmother,” said Topchy by telephone from Mykolaev in Ukraine’s south, where he is director of the local zoo.

“It is my opinion — and I could be wrong — but I believe the elephant died of natural causes, exacerbated by poor living conditions in winter, bad feed and a sharp change in his food rations.”

But Topchy also believes that the Kiev park is being poorly run, adding that he has written Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a letter detailing the problems. He has yet to receive an answer however. “It’s as if you placed an opera or bank director as the head of the park — the people who run zoos are a very specific community.”

The Kiev Zoo was in fact ejected three years ago from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), the continent’s umbrella zoo organization, which keeps tabs on the quality of facilities of its associates. An EAZA spokesperson said that the group “refrained from commenting on zoos that aren’t members,” but the Kiev Zoo’s termination was connected with “animal welfare violations.”

Kapustin, Hrihoryiv and others claim that the true aim ultimately is to force the Kiev Zoo’s closure — and thereby free up the 40 hectares of prime real estate in the city center that it occupies for outside development.

On a sunny, leafy early June day however, the park was filled with strolling families and shrieking, joyful grade school groups. To an untrained Western eye, the animal exhibits seemed cramped — perhaps from a zoo of a few decades ago. A regal African leopard paced back and forth interminably in a cage that seemed the size of a small Soviet apartment. The hippopotamus looked as if he were cooling off in a child’s wading pool.

“There was an elephant here, but he’s dead now,” a mother patiently explained to her 5-year-old daughter, who asked what the small, empty enclosure was next to the hippo.