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Who or what is killing animals at the Kiev zoo?

Officials blame poison for recent animal deaths.

Kiev Zoo animal deaths
A woman holds a candle and photographs of animals that died recently at the Kiev Zoo during a protest against mistreatment of animals held in the center of Kiev on April 30, 2010. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

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.