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Lessons to be learned?

As someone who is studying conservation, I found the news about the killing of the giraffe in Copenhagen and the lions in Longleat quite a depressing story.  Just like any member of the public, I felt saddened by these deaths, and as a scientist I wanted to know why there was the need to cull these creatures.

It was said that the giraffe was culled as he had reached 18 months old, and the zoo under guidance from the European Association of Zoo’s and Aquaria (EAZA) decided that culling was the only option as they wanted to avoid interbreeding at all costs.  This I can completely understand.  One doesn’t want to set out to conserve a species, and only serve to ensure the deleterious genes are represented by irresponsible breeding.  However, I would question why the animal was allowed to come into being in the first place.  If his genes are so well represented then why was the mating allowed, surely even if they want to avoid contraception to allow for as natural a setting as possible as the zoo states, then these animals must be separated, or in the next two years we could see this situation repeated.  I also have a problem rationalising with myself as to why the animal was not neutered and given to another institution if genetics was the overriding factor in his demise.  Then there is the question of his being dissected and fed to the lions.  This I don’t have a problem with as such, better that his carcass did not go to waste and that another animal benefitted from it, and you could argue better a giraffe that had a good life than an intensively farmed cow or sheep.  However this was a public dissection, and it seemed to attract a fair number of people, some of whom were young children; as a scientist I see the value of dissection, it is invaluable for teaching us the physiology of an animal and yes children do need to learn this in my humble opinion.   The way this was done however, seemed more a of a public spectacle of just dismembering the body to feed to the lions rather than a decent scientific look at the animal.   In this respect, I find myself questioning was this done really for the public good and education, or as a poorly thought out PR stunt to attract attention to the zoo.  What’s the old saying?  There’s no such thing as bad press.  Let’s face it, even the least cynical amongst us can see that Copenhagen is now going to be known all around the world as the zoo that killed a giraffe, and fed it in the most public way possible to a pride of lions.

Marius was culled because his genes were over represented. Copyright of the BBC.

Marius was culled because his genes were over represented. Copyright of the BBC.

As for the lions of Longleat, this seems to have attracted even more rage amongst the general public.  One neutered male, a lioness and her cubs were euthanised.   This was done during the closed season of the park, it is reported that the keepers from the park were angry, upset and confused as to why this happened.  21 lions is a big number of large cats to be held in captivity in a relatively small space compared to what a group like that would need in the wild.  It is also reported the male had to be put to sleep as he had been attacked and that they were concerned for the safety of the lioness and her cubs; so much so they put them to sleep too.  This again seems to be a problem with the breeding policies.  There were too many and they became violent is the reason that is given for this euthanasia of healthy animals.  The reports for this, unlike Copenhagen seem quite clandestine for the time being, and this makes it harder to really judge what is going on.  However, it still begs the question, why were so many allowed to breed to begin with and why was contraception not used to control it?

With both these cases one may look at it with what could be considered ‘rose tinted glasses’ where we want to have animals behaving as naturally as they possibly can be, going from well studied wild animals.  But these are not in the wild and we do have a responsibility to ensure that they are bred responsibly and with great care.  When they who make the decision to euthanise are worried about the safety of the sedation used as they might die, or that you take away the prospect of the gene pool having potential genes taken away or that the animal loses the will to procreate and therefore makes for a less happy animal, I feel I have to question these ideals.  If you are worried it will die from the sedation,  you surely wouldn’t decide to euthanise it.  If you are worried about losing potential genes, you would not euthanise the animal.  The only acceptable argument I can see is that castration/contraception may make the animal less natural and less happy.  But surely we have to look at other alternatives and not allowing over breeding.  If the EAZA has such strict laws then maybe they should be revisited and made more robust to stop animals from being bred surplus to requirements, so that other zoo’s that may not be part of the same breeding club can take on unwanted animals.

It is said that the EAZA and Copenhagen zoo have expressed some surprise that people are outraged, and likened the killing to farm animals being slaughtered for the table.  Here is where I feel that scientists working in conservation have got it wrong.  Yes most people will not really think about a cute pig when they are tucking into their bacon sarnie, or the doe eyed expression of a cow when they eat their steak, or the poor little male calves being slaughtered so that one may have that bit of dairy.  No they just won’t, because we like to block images out like that, we like meat, we don’t necessarily want to think about what it was when it was alive.  That’s part of human nature.  But when we sit down to enjoy our sunday roast, that animal was in all likely hood bred just for it’s meat and not as part of a conservation programme.  Yes, there are rare breeds that are bred to keep those breeds alive for the purpose of becoming food, but lets be clear when you put your hand in your pocket to go to the zoo, that is not what you think you are paying for.  When we as scientists become so blaze about genetics  in saying a space should have been left for an animal ‘genetically more important’, and that animals had to euthanised because they became too big a group.  It annoys the general public.  The very people that put much of the funding into conservation efforts in the first place.  In the couple of days since the killing episodes, there is now on line evidence to show that Copenhagen euthanises 20 to 30 animals per year, and that the EAZA have records of all recent euthanised animals from zoos because of breeding but they don’t like to publicise it.   This very notion of expendable animals because of their genetics is causing a backlash.  If for example a dog breeder or cat breeder euthanised various animals because it wasn’t good for their breeding regime there would be outrage.  Does a zoo really expect to be treated differently because they are housing exotic animals from around the world?  Of course culling will happen, of course breeding that you don’t want to occur could happen but it should be controlled as much as possible.  As should the PR around these issues.  Zoo’s need to show empathy and sadness if they are to be liked at all by their general public, and rather than belittling the sentimentality they should be wanting to soothe it as it’s exactly that sentimentality that puts the money into the zoo’s conservation coffers.  Even without the issue of money, as someone who wants to work in conservation, this PR nightmare has tarnished all people who work in conservation with a nasty brush and damages all the good work that zoo’s do do for those animals that rely on the help of zoos to continue to have a presence in the world.  One can only hope that zoo’s and the EAZA take on board the massive outcry these killings have caused and start to work together more cohesively and with much more empathy.

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5 thoughts on “Lessons to be learned?

      • You have to wonder if our concept of zoos is even exactly healthy. Oh it’s a tough subject, but we’ve most all been to one and seen some seriously depressed animals. Some of those creatures are perfectly aware they’re lives are being abused by all those thousands of never ending people who come to walk by and look at them. I’m sure they’re better off than animals at a circus, but…

        Ten or so years ago in Dallas at the very big Dallas zoo a gorilla escaped his inescapable pen and if I recall correctly he killed at least one person while also doing some permanent harm to some other persons before the police showed up and shot him. Can I blame the gorilla? Oh no…not at all.

        The last zoo I attended was a much more recent thing, guess I went only two or so years back, but to the Tyler, Texas Caldwell Zoo…a very nice place, the Cheetah’s looked suicidal.

  1. There seems to be nearly an equal amount of anger directed at the fact he was fed to the lions rather than his pointless death. What I don’t understand is why they didn’t sell him to a private keeper. Lots of people came forward to take him including a billionaire. I’m supposing zoos are ideologically against private ownership. Frankly, with decisions like this being made they are equally incompetent.

  2. Such a good piece of writing!!!!! I actually have volunteered at a zoo for the past 6 years… though I still have issues with zoos, some of them are really doing a lot for animals and conservation and most importantly are great places for educating the general public on those matters. That is why, this Copenhagen situation was awful! It was interesting to see the reaction of the zoo I volunteer at to this awful news. I guess, contraceptives to the Copenhagen zoo are dangerous and hurt the animals, but the zoos in the U.S. use contraceptives and have found it doesn’t hurt much and it is much better than overcrowded exhibits and having to euthanize and feed an animal to other animals. Anyways, it’s a crazy subject, and really breaks my heart because it makes people hate zoos in general, when this is really just one zoo that needs major help. Something a person at my zoo asked though was, Would people care if it was a snake or tortoise that got euthanized and fed to other animals?

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