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SURABAYA, Indonesia — A gaunt, malnourished white tiger died of pneumonia in mid-February. A lion died of strangulation in January when its neck became entangled in the cable that opened and closed the door of its cage. More than 100 other animals have perished since last summer, including a rare Komodo dragon found dead in its enclosure last month.

The municipal zoo in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city after Jakarta, is one of Asia’s largest, with 3,450 animals on 37 acres. But Indonesian news outlets have taken to calling it the “zoo of death,” and it has become a lightning rod for zoo critics around the world as an acrimonious debate unfolds over who is responsible for the animal deaths.

Online petitions calling for the closing of the zoo have drawn hundreds of thousands of signatures from around the world. “The best option is to close this zoo,” said Ashley Fruno of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a group that opposes all zoos as inhumane. “There’s simply no reason why it needs to stay open.” The group has mobilized 80,000 volunteers around the world to write to the Indonesian government about the Surabaya Zoo.

Even people who see a positive role for zoos in protecting endangered species and educating the public have worries about the one in Surabaya. Other than zoos in war zones, it is “probably the worst case of a zoo and dying animals anywhere in the world in recent years,” said Sybelle Foxcroft, the director of Conservation and Environmental Education 4 Life, an Australian nonprofit group that has begun advising the Surabaya Zoo.

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Who is to blame?

A bitter debate is under way over who is responsible for the heavy death toll at the zoo over the past four years. On one side is the secretary-general of the Indonesian zoo association, Tony Sumampau, who owns private safari parks, including one on the outskirts of Surabaya.

He has rallied international zoo and environmental groups and the Indonesian government behind his contention that mismanagement and inadequate veterinary care are to blame. After a controversy arose over animal deaths at the zoo in 2010, the national government named a team that included Sumampau to supervise it.

On the other side of the debate are Tri Rismaharini, the mayor of Surabaya, who last July took control of the zoo from the team and the zoo’s longtime managers. They criticize Sumampau for shuffling animals back and forth between the municipal zoo and his family’s safari parks while he was in charge, and say he gave the healthiest animals to his parks while saddling the zoo with the sick and dying.

“The good animals were transferred elsewhere,” Rismaharini said in an interview.

Sumampau said he needed to move animals back and forth to improve genetic diversity and relieve overcrowding, and he denied that he left dying animals behind in the zoo last July.

Private interests

Sumampau and his family in Jakarta own and operate two for-profit safari parks and a dolphin park, as well as wildlife-theme hotels and restaurants. One of the safari parks, 40 miles south of downtown Surabaya, is promoting a “Journey to the Temple of Terror.” The park’s website describes it as “a colossal stuntman theatrical show which combines 35 Hollywood-style special effects with daring action of stuntmen and dozens of animals in one show,” and it includes illustrations of actors leaping from balls of flame.

Some municipal officials say appointing Sumampau created a conflict of interest. He denies this, saying that his theme park does not compete with the zoo. The park charges $11.70 for admission and offers visitors numerous shows and close encounters with wildlife, he said, while admission to the zoo is just $1.25, and it produces few shows other than an elephant ride.

The zoo grounds are an oasis, featuring some of the oldest and stateliest tropical trees left in crowded East Java. But it sits on downtown land worth as much as $600 million in a bustling metropolis where Dutch colonial homes are rapidly giving way to high-rises and shopping malls.

Rismaharini, the mayor, said in an interview that she was officially notified in 2011 of plans to bulldoze part of the zoo to make room for a luxury hotel and restaurant, which would pay fees to subsidize the rest of the zoo. She declined to say who notified her. Other municipal officials have said that it was the Forest Ministry in Jakarta, but the ministry denied this.

Sumampau acknowledged having plans drafted for a restaurant and an access road — plans he said he paid for himself — but he denied that a hotel was included.

Veterinarian’s view

Unlike many zoo veterinarians, Liang Kaspe, the longtime senior veterinarian at the Surabaya Zoo, disapproves of contraceptives for animals, contending they are harmful to the animals’ hormonal balance and may raise their risk of cancer. She said she tried to separate males and females of some species into separate enclosures. In general, she allows much more crowding of animal pens than most zoos do.

When Sumampau took over supervision of the zoo in 2010, he said, 180 pelicans were crammed into an enclosure the size of a volleyball court. He transferred half of them elsewhere, some to his own safari parks.

Liang, whom Sumampau relegated to running a pet hospital but whom the mayor has since brought back to run the zoo, said the pelican enclosure had not become so cramped that the birds started destroying their own eggs, which she said was an indicator of true overcrowding. She also said that the zoo was already preparing to move them to a larger enclosure when Sumampau arrived.

Liang also disapproves of euthanasia, citing a moral reluctance to take life. When Chandrika, an elderly white tiger, injured its tongue several months ago and had trouble eating, she did not tranquilize and operate, she said, because she thought the tiger was so old that it would die on the operating table. The tiger instead became more and more gaunt, to the horror of animal activists around the world, until its weakened immune system was unable to fight off pneumonia, and it died.

Foxcroft, the conservationist, said she believed the tiger could have been saved if an earlier shoulder infection had been properly treated before it reached the tongue and caused the animal to bite it off, or if the tongue injury had been immediately diagnosed and aggressively treated.

Sumampau said that despite the zoo’s troubles, he thinks it should remain open. “If it closes,” he said, “they’ll really build a mall.”

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