Indonesian Government Investigating 'Zoo Of Death' After African Lion Found Hanging In Surabaya Zoo Cage

By Ben Wolford on January 27, 2014 4:39 PM EST

Surabaya Zoo
This baby orangutan was photographed at the Surabaya Zoo, which has become known as the Zoo of Death for its horrific history of animal abuses. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Indonesian government is taking new measures to stem the horrific loss of life at a controversial zoo known as the Zoo of Death. The zoo's management has been handed over to local authorities after perhaps the most grisly incident yet: an adolescent African lion was found hanging dead from a metal wire its cage earlier this month.

Agus Supangkat, spokesman for the Surabaya Zoo, says the lion (called "Michael") was discovered early on the morning of Jan. 7 by a caretaker. "We are still investigating how the steel cables could entrap the African lion's head," Agus told the Jakarta Globe. "Michael was relatively young, he was only one-and-half-years old; it could be that he was playing around and somehow his head got stuck." (A graphic picture of the lion has been floating around online, but we warn you that it may be extremely disturbing to some people.) He said the zookeepers used steel cables to secure the cage doors as a safety precaution for themselves.

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As Indonesian police began to investigate the death, they discovered the corpse had been removed. But according to the Jakarta Globe, authorities would not say whether they believed the Surabaya Zoo was deliberately impeding the investigation. "We are going to wait for the autopsy results, then we can further examine the case," the department's chief of detectives told news outlets. Then last week, under deepening pressure, the federal government's forestry minister announced that it would relinquish control of the zoo to the mayor and commence an audit led by a nearby university. Officials suggested overpopulation may be at the root of the zoo's problems.

But after years of controversy, the zoo's record of negligence seems to go beyond a question of resources. In 2010, the zoo became internationally infamous when reports surfaced that 25 animals were dying each month prematurely. When the government brought in a well-known zookeeper to make changes, he succeeded only in bringing the monthly mortality rate down to 15. Then gruesome details of the conditions began to emerge.

In 2011, three valuable komodo dragons went missing, and the zoo's top caretaker admitted several days later that they were "either eaten by larger predators or they were stolen." The Associated Press reported in 2012 that 180 pelicans were jammed into a cage the size of a volleyball court, and 16 tigers were kept in "prison-like" conditions. In March of that year, a 30-year-old giraffe was found dead. An autopsy revealed that its stomach contained a 40-pound ball of plastic from eating trash and the wrappers of candy that visitors tossed into its pen. Next, a Sumatran tiger was starved and poisoned, its only meals consisting of meat laced with formaldehyde. Other animals have simply disappeared. And earlier this month, on the Sunday before the lion was found hanging, one of the zoo's two wildebeests died of an intestinal complication. Just before that an orangutan died of pneumonia, the Jakarta Globe reported.

The Surabaya Zoo has thousands of animals in its care and one of the widest selections of any in Indonesia, with more than 350 species. Founded in 1916, it is one of the oldest and largest zoos in Southeast Asia. A Change.org petition to close the zoo has more than 190,000 signatories.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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