The Berlin Zoo’s Most Troublesome Animal?

Berlin’s Zoological Garden, or the Berlin Zoo, is the oldest in the world. It has about 1,500 different species and almost 20,500 animals, including the largest variety of species in the world. The zoo has an intriguing history. It was founded in 1841 by the Prussian King Frederick William IV. The facility went through all the paper work and opened in 1844 with monetary support from the government. It became the first official zoo in Germany. Many different and rare species were raised and bred there, including pygmy hippopotamuses, Indian elephants, and orangutans. By World War II, the zoo housed 4,000 birds and mammals and 8,300 aquarium specimens. Because of the extensive war damage from World War II, the facility was completely destroyed, with only 91 animals surviving. It began to rebuild in 1952 and grew from there. By the late 20th century, the zoo and aquarium housed more than 5,000 land vertebrates of nearly 1,350 species, plus an aquarium fauna of about 7,000 freshwater and marine fishes and invertebrates. It covers 99 acres, and the aquarium is a four story building. The zoo can take credit for many impressive achievements, like housing the world’s best collection of wild cattle, the endangered mountain anoa (a miniature water buffalo), Knut the polar bear, pandas, and so on. Needless to say, millions of tourists visit the grounds today to see this amazing collection of animals.

Bernhard Blaszkiewitz

Bernhard Blaszkiewitz

Many consider the current and soon-departing zoo director, Bernhard Blaszkiewitz, to be the most troublesome animal on the premises. He has served on the grounds for 40 years and as the zoo director for about 23 years. He has caused controversy between politicians to animal rights activists to his employees due to his cruelty to animals and humans alike. Interviewers Biewald and Comenares from Bild.de asked the question: “Do you know how many times you have displayed cruelty to animals and not their welfare?” He answered, “Often. Around 20 times. All investigations were terminated.” Most of these investigations connected in one way or another to lawsuits, and most of the lawsuits or criminal accusations were terminated because Blaszkiewitz ignored them, payed people off, or managed to prove in court that the evidence didn’t exist. This series of events goes all the way back to 2008.

In 2008, one of many criminal accusations was set against him by animal activist Claudia Hämmerling. Blaszkiewitz was “under pressure to resign after a Green Party politician filed a criminal complaint” of illegally selling animals for slaughter. The main argument stated that some animals were intentionally bred for slaughter. At the time, Hämmerling was a member of the Berlin state assembly and an animal rights expert. She gave multiple examples of selling animals for slaughter, dating back to the early 1990s hippoon separate occurrences, one of a pygmy hippopotamus and another of a family of Asiatic black bears, to prove her point. She also claimed that the zoo crossbred and sold other animals to China that were killed and “allegedly ended up being used in impotency cures.” Blaszkiewitz defended himself by saying, in essence, that the offspring were planned and the dealers were reputable. Hämmerling did not have enough evidence to launch an investigation, though, so the accusation was dropped. Later, Blaszkiewitz admitted to killing stray cats back in 1991 by breaking their necks with his bare hands. He claimed that he killed them for the animals’ benefit in order to prevent disease and injury. The zoo claims it does not kill cats anymore.

The employees reported multiple instances of unfair treatment by Blaszkiewitz, not just towards the animals, but to themselves as well. The “former Berlin Zoo business director Gerald Uhlich allegedly lost his job over a disagreement with Blaszkiewitz about how the zoo should be run.” Mistreatment did not end there. Another employee reported that Blaszkiewitz balled up reports and threw them at zookeeper’s heads. The employees are not even allowed to move a bench without his approval. He also “described his women employees as “0.1” — the zoological code for breeding females.” The implication, here, is that women are worthless beyond child breeding. These negative portrayals spread throughout social media and the news, spreading more embarrassing controversy.

knutKnut, raised by humans after his mother rejected him in captivity, became a star of the Berlin Zoo. Berlin’s pride and joy had a Hollywood movie offer and even a cover photo for Vanity Fair. Knut drew in 3.2 million visitors and 6.8 million euros in 2007 before Tierpark Neumünster (a rival zoo) filed a lawsuit against the Berlin Zoo. The lawsuit focused on the fact that the Berlin Zoo borrowed their polar bear, Lars, to mate with Tasca and that the first born would belong to Tierpark Neumünster. Knut was Lars’ and Tasa’s first born cub. This connection between the polar bears sparked the action to get the revenue that was rightly theirs. Blaszkiewitz paid Tierpark a kind of settlement and kept Knut at the Berlin Zoo.

Time went on and Knut grew up. Sadly, after Knut’s followers dwindled, he would cry out since he had no attention from visitors or employees. Then, he died suddenly in March 2011. His passing was strange, as Megan Connolly notes: “While standing on a rock, Knut started to spin in circles, suffered a seizure, and then plunged into the water where he died.” Some wondered if the zoo mistreated Knut, thus causing his untimely death. Of course, nothing could be proven to support this theory. While the people of Berlin mourned the death of their polar bear celebrity, Blaszkiewitz had Knut stuffed and displayed in a museum. Some praised the idea of preserving the celebrity, but others thought this an outlandishly inappropriate decision given that Knut should have been treated more like a family member.

Andreas Knieriem

Andreas Knieriem

Finally, Blaszkiewitz’s contract came up for renewal. The board of directors decided not to renew his contract and presented Andreas Knieriem as his successor. He took the news sadly, basically saying that he never wanted to leave the zoo and always wants to be a part of it. His contract officially continues through the end of June this year. He has been performing the traditional farewell things that all old bosses do while watching the upcoming director make plans. Knieriem introduced himself in staff meetings on April 1st. He is already collecting massive amounts of data (unlike his predecessor) and heading in a positive direction so far. He also plans to improve several of the habitats and have them regularly cleaned and monitored. The public expects a lot of great things from the new zoo director when he takes over. Knieriem states, “I am not the Messiah,” inferring that he cannot save and fix everything in the facility. He knows that if he does anything amiss, the media is hovering around and will exploit it. The new director will have to tip-toe through the first couple months to a year before the media exposure will lessen, but the future finally looks hopeful.