IRAN: Mysterious deaths of big cats at Tehran zoo captivate nation

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The Tehran zoo remained closed Tuesday as a mystery surrounds the killing of several big cats, stunning the city and leaving angry mourners demanding answers from authorities amid accusations of politics and environmental bungling.

Between eight and 14 lions and tigers were reportedly shot in the head over the weekend amid conflicting reports regarding an outbreak of glanders, a potentially lethal disease that normally affects equine species but can spread to humans and other mammals.


After animal-rights activists and horrified zoo patrons expressed outrage at the killings, authorities later claimed that the animals were euthanized by injection, and they revised the number of big cats killed from 14 to 10 and then eight.

But the tragedy may reveal an even darker truth: Critics now claim the animals were victims of an irresponsible and politicized publicity stunt by government and zoo officials who claimed the cats were part of a program to revive the wild tiger population surrounding the Caspian Sea, where the animals have not been seen in over 50 years.

'[Bringing the tigers] from the very beginning was a just an empty and unscientific measure, because the Siberian tiger is not the same as the Mazandaran [Caspian Sea] tiger, which is extinct, and secondly, to revive a species we need at least a hundred animals and over 4,000 square kilometers of habitat,’ environmental science professor Nizar Karami told Babylon & Beyond.

‘They brought the tigers here and imprisoned them in a very poorly maintained zoo where I would not dare take my son, who is in love with animals, because the zoo in Tehran is so unhygienic and inhumane for keeping animals,’ he added.

The trouble began two weeks ago, when one of the zoo’s Siberian tigers died. The tiger was one of a pair imported from Russia eight months earlier to much fanfare. But rather than releasing the tigers -- which may or may not have been bred in captivity -- into the wild as authorities has promised, officials kept them at the zoo, where they proved a popular attraction.

Until one of them died. The zoo was closed shortly thereafter, and reports surfaced on Sunday that the big cats had been shot.

No one knows exactly what happened -- whether the animals really were infected with glanders, why and how they were killed and how many died. Critics immediately pointed to the poor living conditions at the zoo. The head of the Iranian Environmental Organization blamed zoo officials for feeding the cats contaminated donkey meat.

Amir Elhami, the zoo’s manager, has denied any responsibility on the part of the zoo, maintaining that the tigers were sick when they arrived.

Karami, who has consulted for the zoo, placed the blame on zoo authorities but said that they had little choice once the animals had been infected by the contaminated meat.

‘Glanders is infectious for all animals,’ he said. ‘There was no other option.’

But, he added, the zoo’s claims that the animals were euthanized by injection was a ‘sheer lie.’

‘I have eyewitnesses that say at least eight lions were gunned down, but because the lions were popular they want to show off that they were not so brutal to them,’ he said.

-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran