How Indonesia’s “Death Zoo” Got Its Grisly Reputation

Will Rama the tiger’s demise prompt action at a zoo known for its filthy, overcrowded conditions?

Melani the Tiger
Melani, a 15-year-old Sumatran tiger, was rescued from the Surabaya Zoo in 2013 after becoming ill due to tainted meat. However, she died the year later. Rama, another Sumatran tiger at the zoo, died this week of heart failure. ABDI YANUAR/epa/Corbis

The news was sad in and of itself—one of the rarest tigers in the world, an endangered Sumatran tiger named Rama, died of heart failure Wednesday. But the passing of an animal whose species is experiencing a population plunge is just the tip of the iceberg. Rama died at the Surabaya Zoo, a facility in Java that has earned a reputation as a “death zoo” in recent years.

The moniker might be dramatic, but so are conditions at the zoo. As the Agence France-Presse reports, the zoo was built during Dutch colonial rule of Indonesia over 100 years ago, but its glory days are long over. In recent years, the zoo’s owners have come under fire for its filthy conditions, mismanagement and a wave of animal deaths.

In 2012, Trisnadi Marjan of the Associated Press reported that just two years earlier, the zoo averaged 25 animal deaths per month, though the number had dropped to 15 by the time of the article. The death of a giraffe who ended up having a 40-pound wad of plastic in its stomach sparked an outcry against the zoo, which is known to let visitors wander freely among the animals.

As Keith Bradsher of The New York Times reports, budgetary concerns and management woes appear to be at least partly responsible for the squalid conditions at the zoo, which plays host to cramped enclosures, poorly trained employees and a senior veterinarian who refuses to give the animals contraceptives.

Tony Sumampau, secretary general of the Indonesian Zoo Association and the overseer of a team designated by the government to clean up the zoo, has been accused of taking the zoo’s healthiest animals to his privately-run safari parks and leaving the sickest ones at the zoo to die, writes Bradsher. And Sumampau’s efforts to clean up the zoo's practices did not prevent the accidental hanging of a lion in his cage in 2014 or quell overpopulation among the zoo’s macaques and pelicans.

Animal rights groups who want to shut down the zoo have thus far collected hundreds of thousands of signatures, but the zoo’s management has repeatedly denied that it is to blame. A spokeswoman for the zoo told the AFP that Rama died of natural causes, saying “we provided the best care we could.” But Rama suffered from bad health for years, the AFP reports. 

One of the other Sumatran tigers at the zoo, Melani, was rescued from the zoo in 2013 after pictures of her emaciated frame sparked an uproar (the tiger developed severe health problems after eating tainted meat). However, she died in 2014 at her new facility.

Though the zoo has now been taken over by the local government, Surabaya’s own mayor declared in 2013 that he “was truly ashamed” about the zoo’s conditions and the news it garnered in the international press. But shame hasn’t yet solved the problem for the thousands of animals breeding–and dying—unchecked in the Surabaya Zoo. Perhaps Rama’s untimely demise (whether from natural causes or not) will spark even more oversight, but until then Surabaya seems to have gained its grisly reputation for a reason.

(h/t Washington Post)

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