Mass Squirrel Death at Zoo Leads to Poisoning Investigation

Keepers at a Japanese zoo are suspected of killing dozens of squirrels after giving them medicine used to kill parasites.

Tokyo’s Inokashira Park Zoo has launched a probe into the incident after the medicine, which included three chemicals, was given to the rodents on December 4. Zookeepers also sprayed their nest boxes with insecticide during the treatment, according to a statement posted by the zoo.

The first squirrel died on the same day after the medicine was given. Many others followed. In total, 31 squirrels have died as of Monday.

Rodents like squirrels can suffer from various parasites that affect their health, but these can be kept at bay with preventive treatment. Parasite treatment can be given to rodents in various ways, including a spot-on treatment where it is applied to the animal’s skin, and through an injection.

Although the exact details of the incident remain unclear, the zoo issued a statement admitting that keepers had given the squirrels the chemicals shortly before they died.

“We captured all 40 Japanese squirrels in Building A of the Squirrel Breeding Building and injected them with medicine to exterminate parasites on their body surfaces in order to maintain hygiene for the Japanese squirrels we were keeping,” a zoo statement said.

It went on: “We also sprayed insecticides on the hives that had been placed inside the cages. Afterwards, 40 animals were returned to their cages, but one animal was found to have some abnormalities and died within the same day. The next day, there were still dead and unwell individuals.”

A map showing the location of the Inokashira Park Zoo in Tokyo, Japan. A total of 31 squirrels were found dead there after they were given a treatment intended to kill parasites.Map: Ian RandallCreated with Datawrapper
A map showing the location of the Inokashira Park Zoo in Tokyo, Japan. A total of 31 squirrels were found dead there after they were given a treatment intended to kill parasites. Map: Ian RandallCreated with Datawrapper

Newsweek has contacted representatives from the Inokashira Park Zoo via email for a comment.

The statement said that the three types of drugs used had been used before and were used according to the instructions. But it added that “the possibility of poisoning from the drugs cannot be ruled out, so the animals on display and in the hospital were kept at rest and their progress was observed. However, as of the morning of December 11th, a total of 31 animals had died.”

The zoo said the surviving squirrels had already been put back on display. Following the incident, keepers cleaned the animals’ facility for safety purposes.

“We will endeavor to determine the cause of death through pathological tests and other means, and will notify you as soon as the facts are known,” the statement read.

The species of squirrel kept by the zoo are native to Japan and can be found across the country as well as some of its smaller surrounding islands. The species can be found in forests and suburban environments. Japan is home to three squirrel species in total—the Japanese flying squirrel, the Japanese squirrel and the Japanese giant flying squirrel.

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This article by Robyn White was first published by Newsweek on 12 December 2023. Lead Image: A stock photo shows a Japanese squirrel holding a nut. A zoo in Tokyo accidentally killed 31 squirrels while administering a parasite treatment. MU_MU_/GETTY.

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