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Death at a Zoo

‘Zoothanasia’ is a common practice in Europe and also occurs in the US. Some wildlife advocates say it’s unnecessary

The killing of a young giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo in February 2014 shook the world, causing protests from animal advocates and the public alike. “Marius,” an 18 month-old giraffe that had been born at the Copenhagen Zoo, was healthy and likely would have lived a long life. The animal was put down (and then fed to lions at the zoo), because officials at the zoo concluded it was unsuitable for breeding. A month later, the same zoo euthanized four lions, again on the grounds of genetic purity and breeding.

Giraffes at Copenhagen ZooPhoto by Michael ButtonGiraffes at the Copenhagen Zoo. Zoo animals are typically killed for two reasons: to control the population and manage “surplus animals,” or to maintain genetic strength and diversity within a captive breeding program.

Zoo administrators ended up receiving death threats, and the killings sparked a media feeding frenzy. The serial deaths ushered in a newfound awareness of a not-so-new practice and raised some overlooked questions: Is “zoothanasia,” as the practice has been called, really necessary? And how common is it?

Zoo animals are typically killed for two reasons: to control the population and manage “surplus animals,” or to maintain genetic strength and diversity within a captive breeding program. While many animal rights activists and some conservation biologists are against the use of euthanasia among zoo animals, organizations such as the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria and the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria defend the practice. “As an organization, we believe that culling has a valid scientific basis and must remain one of the tools open to our members, provided that it is carried out humanely,” says David Williams-Mitchell, a spokesperson for EAZA.

Marc Bekoff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at University of Colorado-Boulder and the person credited with coining the term “zoothanasia,” disagrees. He says that killing captive animals is the opposite of conservation. “There simply is no reason to kill any animals, members of endangered species or not, in zoos unless she/he is mortally ill or injured,” says Bekoff, who is author of the book Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.

Sometimes, zoo animals are killed because there’s just too many of them in their cages and enclosures. These “surplus animals” are the result of animals that have been allowed to breed without a zoo considering how it might care for them in the future. These surplus animals then suffer due to lack of resources, money and care. According to a study from the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, at least 7,500 animals (and as many as 200,000 animals) are considered surplus at any one time. For some zoos, killing an animal is easier (and cheaper) than continuing to care for it, or even transferring it to some kind of a sanctuary. “They'll tell you they do it for lack of money and space, for example,” Bekoff says.

Some animals are deemed ‘surplus’ because they are poor candidates for breeding. While zoos are mostly in the business of entertaining their visitors and educating them about wildlife, many are home to captive breeding programs and are under pressure to conserve the best of species to ensure they do not go extinct. Williams-Mitchell argues that, from EAZA’s perspective, there is an obligation to consider the future of a species over the future of just one animal. Williams-Mitchell said EAZA believes that “culling as a tool should be available to any zoo that is serious about maintaining a healthy population of a species,” though he was careful to caution that killing “is only one of the options.”

It’s important to note that US zoos practice euthanasia far more sparingly than zoos in the EU.

Accredited zoos in the US aren’t supposed to use euthanasia for routine population control, and typically only kill animals for medical purposes or to relieve suffering — for example, to aid ailing animals and those with deformities and terminal illnesses. In rare cases, animals are killed when the zoo cannot maintain its quality of life at an acceptable standard.

>US zoos primarily utilize contraception instead of euthanasia to manage animal populations. But veterinary birth control comes with its own risks. According to Williams-Mitchell, “Evidence from the United States shows that widespread use of contraception can and has led to catastrophic population collapse in some species, requiring severe remedial measures including the import of animals from elsewhere.”

Peter Dickinson, creator of an zoo professionals’ blog called ZooNews Digest, says the issue is complicated. Zoothanasia is a tool that can be used alongside other successful (and available) methods to help control breeding and population. And sometimes, he argues, it’s the lesser of two evils. “Within the Good Zoo/Bad Zoo way of looking at things….what is better, putting an animal to sleep or packing it off to slum facility?” he says. “Bad zoos take one of two actions. They rear the animal (hand rear) until it is just past the “cutsey" stage and then cull it. Or pack it off to some other slum facility.”

At the very least, the uproar over last year’s euthanasia is raising public awareness about this practice and sparking calls for change at European zoos. In Bekoff’s opinion, zoothanasia is accepted because in the past it was preformed routinely without the public’s knowledge. Also, few people would argue with killing in the name of “conservation.” Now, he says, that’s changing. “It's often done behind closed doors, but more and more people today can no longer be fooled.”

Jacalyn Beales
Jacalyn Beales is a writer and animal welfare advocate in Toronto, Canada. She is also the founder of PACH (People Against Canned Hunting). You can follow PACH here.

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