Berlin zoo is under pressure to explain the fate of hundreds of its animals which allegedly have disappeared without trace amid accusations that they have been slaughtered and in some cases turned into potency-boosting drugs.
Claudia Hämmerling, a Green party politician, backed by several animal rights organisations, alleges that the zoo's director, Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, sold the animals to traders.
She claims to hold evidence on four Asian black bears and a hippopotamus, which were taken from Berlin, officially to go to a new home. They were transported to the Belgian town of Wortel, which has no zoo, but which does have an abattoir.
According to Hämmerling these animals were slaughtered at the abattoir. She said the systematic "overproduction of animals" at zoos, designed to attract more visitors, was to blame.
Hämmerling said she also knew of several tigers and leopards from Berlin that ended up in a tiger breeding farm in China that promoted itself as a purveyor of traditional potency-boosting medicines made from the bodies of big cats. She alleges the animals' remains were pulverised and turned into drugs.
Blaszkiewitz, who became something of a personality after the polar bear Knut was born at his zoo in December 2006, has strongly denied the charges. The bear's popularity bumped up visitor numbers and sent shares in the company soaring.
Responsible for 23,000 animals and credited with turning Berlin zoo into the city's most popular tourist attraction, Blaszkiewitz believes his detractors are spreading "untruths, half-truths and lies". He said: "The stories of slaughter have been invented. We only work with respectable zoo dealers."
He added that while animals were sent to China in the 1990s, their transfer was approved by the Federal Office for Nature Protection. Rearing animals, he said, was central to his work. He denied claims that money making was the motivating factor. "It's good for the animals, and of course our visitors should also have the chance to observe the rearing process," he said.
A spokeswoman for Hämmerling said yesterday the MP was prepared to press charges. State prosecutors will soon announce whether the case goes to court.
The zoo has been unable to shake off the charge that it has been encouraging animal births so as to boost visitors keen on "cute offspring". The phenomenon has been labelled "Knut-mania", after the cub became one of the the biggest money-spinning animals in history, thanks largely to marketing offshoots, which benefited the zoo. Knut products range from cuddly toys to credit cards.
It is believed standard practice for zoos to kill "surplus" animals. Nuremberg zoo's deputy director, Helmut Mägdefrau, was reported as saying: "If we cannot find good homes for the animals, we kill them and use them as feed." Recently an antelope in Nuremberg was fed to caged lions in front of visitors, causing outrage.
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