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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

A Killer Stalks the Zoo

At least 62 animals have been poisoned in Brazil since Jan. 24. The staff is horrified and puzzled, but signs point to an inside job.

March 13, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Tony was the first to die. They found his body early in the morning of Jan. 24, limp and lifeless, his face a mask of pain.

Three days later, another suspicious death surfaced, with similar signs. By week's end, there were five more.

Soon victims were dying in groups, poisoned by the same odorless, colorless, highly toxic substance. Desperate authorities have tallied at least 62 deaths but acknowledge that they are not close to making an arrest.

Who is killing the animals at the Sao Paulo Zoo?

Since Tony the chimpanzee died, an elephant, five camels, several tapirs, a pair of rare capuchins, an orangutan, some tiny golden lion tamarins and dozens of porcupines have been poisoned in a case that has baffled Brazilian police and horrified zoo officials and visitors.

Law enforcement agencies have mobilized 50 officers -- including nearly a fifth of the city's special operations unit -- to hunt down the serial killer, while zookeepers scramble to beef up security, change feeding routines, install cameras and find ways to cope with a rampage nobody can make sense of.

"It's an unthinkable situation," said Jose Luiz Catao Dias, technical and scientific director at the zoo in South America's biggest city. "We have emergency protocols for escapes, for fires, for flooding, for walkouts and strikes. But the Sao Paulo Zoo had no protocol for insanity."

Worse yet for Catao and his staff, signs point to an inside job, or at least assistance from within -- meaning that a killer may be in their midst, somebody with knowledge of the park's operations and access to its food supply.

Investigators are probing the possibility of a vendetta by a disgruntled worker or former worker, but some employees say they cannot think of anyone who left the zoo under a cloud or who would kill so many defenseless creatures to make a point.

"If it's for revenge, then take it out on a person, not on the animals," zoo biologist Juliane dos Santos Soares said. "Cowards!"

She and her colleagues have been dealing with the horror of seeing so many of their charges die painful, premature deaths. Many of the animals' handlers had worked with them for decades, like Baira the elephant's keeper, who knew her so well after 30 years together that he could tell she was blinking differently one day. He immediately informed his bosses, but the elephant died less than 24 hours later, leaving her keeper in tears. The man is still too devastated to talk about what happened.

Lab tests have implicated sodium fluoroacetate, a rodenticide so lethal that a few specks dissolved in water can kill a large dog. A drop in the eye of a human being would cause an agonizing death within an hour or two.

The substance is banned for everyday use in Brazil. It can be bought abroad -- Australia uses it to control its wallaby population -- or manufactured by someone with a modest knowledge of chemistry.

Whoever acquired or made the poison must have known its potency and considered its lack of odor or taste ideal for killing animals, such as monkeys, which refuse to eat anything with a bitter smell or taste, Catao said.

Nobody suspected deliberate poisoning at first. When Tony died, about halfway into a normal life span of about 45 years, a necropsy showed pulmonary swelling in the former circus chimp's chest but no obvious malignant cause.

The same symptoms appeared in a camel that died three days later, but because the two animals were of different species, lived more than half a mile apart, ate different food and had different water sources, no red flag popped up.

But two days later, the zoo lost three Brazilian tapirs within a few hours, including a 3-month-old named Watermelon. Mere coincidence was impossible.

The park's directors immediately choked off the supply of food, mostly vegetables and grains grown on the zoo's own farm, fearing it had been accidentally tainted. Bacterial infection was ruled out -- nothing could jump between species like that -- and toxicological tests came back negative for legal pesticides.

Yet the carcasses kept piling up: another chimp, then Baira the elephant.

Nine days after the first death, the poison was identified.

"We knew it was fluoroacetate," said a weary Catao, taking off his glasses and trying to rub six weeks of exhaustion and worry out of his eyes. "We knew there is no antidote. There's almost nothing that can be done once it's ingested."

The zoo now knew what was killing the animals. But who was doing it? And how?

"Our first [thought] was the public -- some crazy person who came in and threw contaminated food," Catao said.

With more than half a dozen animals dead by the beginning of February, the police were brought in. Catao and the chief investigator on the case, Clovis Ferreira de Araujo, sat down to piece together the scant clues.

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