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Who or what is killing animals at the Kiev zoo?

Officials blame poison for recent animal deaths.

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.