Monkey Business: Eccentric Berlin Zoo Director Under Scrutiny
The Berlin Zoo is no stranger to odd birds and troubling episodes, but now a human is in the spotlight. An international law firm is investigating the leadership style of its eccentric director.
The Berlin Zoological Garden is a flourishing business. For weeks now, shareholders have been pleased about the rising share price of a company that seems extremely healthy.
At the beginning of the year, the zoo's operating assets included 1,059 mammals, 8,454 invertebrates and 770 amphibians. The annual report listed two red giant kangaroos, a night monkey and 14 capybaras as "remarkable breeding successes." What's more, the zoo is considered the world's most diverse in terms of the species it houses, and visitor numbers are also near the top internationally.
Nevertheless, the supervisory board is worried. Stories have repeatedly surfaced about zoo Director Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, whose management style has come under sharp criticism. Most recently, for example, when he described his women employees as "0.1" -- the zoological code for breeding females.
Gleiss Lutz, a major law firm with an international reputation, has now been hired to clear up the matter. The firm -- which normally deals with big business clients like Commerzbank, Siemens and Daimler -- spent weeks doing research between animal enclosures and feed storage areas, interviewing dozens of zoo employees. It will soon present the supervisory board with the strictly confidential results of its review, and then a decision will likely be reached over whether 59-year-old Blaszkiewitz can keep his job.
'Many Claims Are Being Made'
The list of the eccentric director's alleged foibles is long. For example, Blaszkiewitz reportedly types his correspondence on a typewriter and has his emails printed out for him. When arguing with employees, he likes to respond in Latin. He finds vegetarians suspect. He pities "people who eat bird feed in the morning," as he once said. "If that's what God had wanted, we would have a beak."
While visitors still remain mystified about the sudden and early death of Knut, the zoo's world-famous polar bear, many employees are at odds with the language used and instructions given by their director. In January Blaszkiewitz, a regular churchgoer, was reportedly critical of the fact that employees collect Christmas bonuses even though they are "un-Christian." He later apparently described Berlin's senator for women and integration as the head of the department "for women and Carnival," although Blaszkiewitz denies the accusation.
There is also sometimes trouble during the director's morning walkthroughs. Employees report that Blaszkiewitz has balled up handwritten notes used to document the numbers of animals in various zoo areas and thrown them at zookeepers' heads. The staff is not even permitted to move a park bench without the director's approval.
Blaszkiewitz, a biologist who wrote his dissertation on the zoo's mammal population, has run the Tierpark zoo in the eastern part of Berlin for the last 22 years, and in 2007 he was also put in charge of the Zoological Garden in the western section. Together, the two zoos make up Zoo AG, whose shares are so popular that families pass them from one generation to the next, partly because shareholders are given free entry.
Blaszkiewitz declined to be interviewed by SPIEGEL, and he also refused to answer detailed questions in writing. His spokeswoman was unwilling to confirm or deny individual accusations.
Supervisory board Chairman Frank Bruckmann says that Blaszkiewitz "has done a good job" over the years. But, he says, "many claims are being made at the zoo," and there are both real and perceived facts about the case.
No Proof of Allegations
Blaszkiewitz has not only been criticized for his interactions with people, but also for his treatment of animals. Once, when he broke the necks of stray kittens in a manner "appropriate for the species," so as to protect his zoo animals from illness, media headlines derided him as a "kitten killer." Not to mention, says Claudia Hämmerling, the Berlin Green Party's spokeswoman on animal policy, Blaszkiewitz has many animals kept in cages that are too small, promotes inbreeding and does business with shady dealers. But no one has ever provided any proof of these allegations. "The final piece of evidence was always missing," says a former supervisory board member.
Nevertheless, some zookeepers have left to find better working conditions elsewhere. Thomas Günther, for example, was responsible for the elephants at the Tierpark in eastern Berlin before moving to Munich to perform the same job.
Günther, 41, a man with long hair and rough hands, proudly shows off the animals in his care. Four elephant cows and a calf live in a space of about 3,000 square meters (about three-quarters of an acre) in Munich. In Berlin's Tierpark, 16 elephants currently share their quarters with rhinos and manatees, spending their nights chained in stalls. "It really turns your stomach," says Günther.
There are frequently accidents in the Berlin enclosures, which Günther believes are completely outdated. The European Elephant Group has documented several attacks on employees at the Tierpark. Just last March, a zookeeper was knocked to the ground, suffering a shoulder injury. "In Berlin, they could have substantially improved the animals' quality of life at a relatively low cost, and they would have avoided problems as a result," says Günther.
Other charges relate to what happens to animals once they leave Berlin. In 2008, Blaszkiewitz faced the suspicion that the Zoological Garden and the Tierpark had sold nine tigers and jaguars to China, where they were allegedly killed and processed into remedies to enhance sexual performance. "I can't rule it out," the director said. "But I'm also not responsible for what happens to an animal after it's been sold several times."
'Blaszkiewitz Has to Go'
Not all zoo visitors are satisfied with such explanations. This has consequences, because the company derives some of its income from animal sponsorships and bequests.
Who would want to leave his or her savings to a facility that chains its animals and perhaps even sells them to shady customers in the Far East? When the zoo's groundhogs didn't come out of hibernation in the spring, supporters cancelled their sponsorships. They felt deceived, because for weeks they weren't told about the deaths of the animals they had sponsored.
Are such visitors too sensitive? Or are zookeepers simply overwhelmed by the complex management of more than 25,000 animals?
His successor is "very competent at the zoological level," says former Berlin Zoo Director Jürgen Lange. Blaszkiewitz himself also sees no reason to resign. "The staff supports me," he told the tabloid Bild newspaper last week. He is the zoo's director, he said, and that's what he will remain. "I intend to keep working," Blaszkiewitz said.
Whether he is right will soon depend, at least in part, on the report by Gleiss Lutz. As one employee recalls, the attorneys wanted to know, among other things, what could be improved at the zoo. According to the employee, one reply was especially common: "Dr. Blaszkiewitz has to go."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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