Knut's zoo embroiled in animal slaughter scandal

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The Independent Online

The Berlin Zoo director who helped turn Germany's rejected polar bear, Knut, into an international celebrity has been put under pressure to resign amid allegations that he had bred and sold animals for slaughter. Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, the director of two of Berlin's prestigious zoos, was accused by a Green Party politician and animal rights experts of selling a pygmy hippopotamus and a family of Asiatic black bears for slaughter in two separate deals conducted in the early 1990s.

He also faced allegations that he had allowed the Berlin Zoo to cross-breed panthers with leopards and that nine tigers and jaguars were sold to China where they were slaughtered and their remains used as a cure for impotence.

Mr Blaszkiewitz categorically denied the charges which were lodged with Berlin state prosecutors late on Wednesday by Claudia Hämmerling, a Green Party MP in the city's parliament. She is an expert on animal rights issues.

Berlin state prosecutors said they were still examining Mrs Hämmerling's allegations to assess whether there were grounds to bring charges against Mr Blaszkiewitz.

Wolfgang Apel, president of Germany's Animal Protection League, demanded that the matter be resolved as quickly as possible. "If there is clear proof that these animals ended up in a slaughterhouse, then Blaszkiewitz will have to resign," he insisted.

Mr Blaszkiewitz's decision to allow Knut to be reared by a zookeeper after his mother rejected him in 2006 ultimately turned the animal into the world's most famous polar bear. The Berlin Zoo has earned millions of euros as a result of a huge increase in visitors since Knut's birth.

A Hollywood film about the bear's exploits followed and the animal is to be used as a symbol of the perils of global warming at an environmental conference in Bonn this summer.

Mrs Hämmerling supported her allegations with documents supplied by a prominent German animal rights activist which suggested that the hippopotamus and bears ended up in the Belgian town of Wortel which, it was claimed, had a slaughterhouse but no zoo.

Mr Blaszkiewitz dismissed the allegations as a "mixture of misunderstanding and nonsense".

He said the animals in question had been sold to reputable animal dealers in completely legitimate transactions and denied that his zoo was deliberately breeding excess animals for slaughter. "All offspring are planned and we are still waiting for several species to give birth," he insisted.

Mrs Hämmerling also added fuel to a debate in Germany about the rights and wrongs of allowing polar bears in captivity to be raised by humans, if their mothers reject them rather than allowing them to die as they would in the wild. Several animal welfare experts have suggested that Knut has developed psychopathic tendencies and will never find a mate because he has been raised by humans.

"Knut is being kept in solitary confinement," said Mrs Hämmerling. "The zoo is making a serious mistake by failing to provide for his future in Berlin and in not finding him a mate."

Mr Blaszkiewitz rejected the charges.

Thomas Doerflein, the Berlin zookeeper who became Knut's surrogate parent, has been forced to sever all ties with the bear because of fears that the animal would become totally dependent on him.

He said in a recent interview that Knut would benefit most by being transferred to another zoo where an attempt could be made to pair him with a female.