Animal Scandal in Berlin Zoo Director Accused of Selling Bears, Hippo for Slaughter

A Green Party politician in Berlin has filed a complaint against the director of the Berlin Zoo, Bernhard Blaszkiewitz. He is accused of selling unwanted animals, including a pygmy hippopotamus and a family of bears, for slaughter -- a claim he denies.

By David Gordon Smith

Berlin Zoo director Bernhard Blaszkiewitz (right) cuts the cake on Knut's first birthday on Dec. 5, 2007. Blaszkiewitz is accused of selling animals for slaughter.

Berlin Zoo director Bernhard Blaszkiewitz (right) cuts the cake on Knut's first birthday on Dec. 5, 2007. Blaszkiewitz is accused of selling animals for slaughter.

Berlin Zoo director Bernhard Blaszkiewitz is under pressure to resign after a Green Party politician filed a criminal complaint against him, alleging that he illegally sold animals to be slaughtered -- a claim he vehemently denies.

The main accusations in the complaint, which was filed with the Berlin public prosecutor's office Monday, are that more animals than necessary were bred in Tierpark Berlin in the knowledge that excess animals would have to be sold for slaughter. The complaint was made by Claudia Hämmerling, a member of the Berlin state assembly and an expert on animal rights issues. Blaszkiewitz is director of both Tierpark Berlin, located in the city's eastern half, and Berlin Zoo, home to celebrity polar bear Knut.

The complaint gives the examples of a pygmy hippopotamus and a family of Asiatic black bears who were allegedly sold to be slaughtered in two separate incidents in the early 1990s. Hämmerling also claims that the zoo bred "bastard" cross-breeds of a panther and a Java leopard, and that tigers and jaguars were sold to China, where they allegedly ended up being used in impotency cures.

Hämmerling backs up her claims with documents obtained from prominent German animal rights activist Frank Albrecht. The documents, which are posted on Hämmerling's Web site, apparently show that the hippopotamus and the bears all ended up in the Belgian town of Wortel near Antwerp after the Tierpark Berlin got rid of them. According to a letter from a dealer in rare animals, the bears went to a zoo in Wortel, while an extract from a stud book purportedly shows that the hippos also ended up in Wortel. However, other documents on Hämmerling's Web site claim to show that Wortel never had a zoo -- but did in fact have a slaughterhouse.

Wolfgang Apel, president of the German Animal Protection League, has called for the cases of the supposedly slaughtered animals to be cleared up quickly. "If there is clear proof that the animals ended up in a slaughterhouse, then Blaskiewitz will ultimately have to resign," Apel told the Wednesday edition of the mass circulation newspaper Bild.

In a telephone interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE Wednesday, Blaszkiewitz categorically denied the allegations, calling them a mixture of "misunderstandings and nonsense." He denied that the zoo was deliberately breeding excess animals. "All offspring are planned," he said, explaining that the zoo was still waiting in vain for offspring from several species.

Blaszkiewitz said that the pigmy hippopotamus mentioned in the complaint had been sold to a reputable German dealer in exotic animals whom he had known for 30 years in a completely above-board deal. The animal had then gone to a zoo in Ghent, Belgium which hassince closed. Blaszkiewitz admitted he did not know what had finally happened to the hippo but said that accusations that the animal had been slaughtered were "pulled out of the air."

Regarding the bear family, Blaszkiewitz said the three bears in question had been old animals which were donated to another reputable dealer in Germany. He said he did not know where the animals had gone after that and denied any knowledge of a Wortel connection.

Addressing the crossbreeding accusations, Blaszkiewitz said the panther and Java leopard belonged to the same species, hence it was normal to pair them with each other. The animals that went to China were sold to zoos with the permission of Germany's Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, he said, adding that claims that the animals had met with an untimely end were based on a "Eurocentric view" of China.

Blaszkiewitz said he was the victim of a "smear campaign" and accused Hämmerling, with whom he said he had had contact several times in the past, of making the accusations for political ends. He emphasized that he had no intention of stepping down and there was no reason for him to do so.

Hämmerling could not be reached for comment. According to a recorded message on her office's answering machine, the Green Party politician is currently out sick.

Simone Herbeth, press spokeswoman for the Berlin public prosecutor's office, confirmed to SPIEGEL ONLINE Wednesday that officials were checking Hämmerling's complaint to see if the allegations had enough substance to justify launching an investigation. She could not say when officials would make a decision on the case. According to Herbeth, selling zoo animals without sufficient reason is a crime under Germany's animal protection laws and is punishable by a fine or a jail sentence of up to three years.

Blaszkiewitz has been the subject of controversy in the past. Animal rights activists criticized the zoo in 2007 over how Knut was being raised, while former Berlin Zoo business director Gerald Uhlich allegedly lost his job over a disagreement with Blaszkiewitz about how the zoo should be run.

There have been accusations of similar misconduct at other zoos in Germany. The director of Erfurt Zoo was fired last July after it transpired that zoo staff had illegally killed animals and sold them as food.


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