By Jacalyn Beales
Some claim zoo dissection and euthanasia is a “European thing,” but can such an excuse really hold up?
For decades, zoos have been the proverbial melting pot of all things wild and exotic. From wolves and polar bears, to lions and giraffes, some of the world’s most notoriously revered species have called the zoological institute home. Whilst many zoos are accredited by various associations, working tirelessly to execute successful breeding programs, an accreditation does not an ethical zoo make.
In March 2015, I wrote a piece about zoothanasia for Earth Island Journal and had the pleasure of speaking with several well-known wildlife experts and conservationists, all possessing varying degrees of opinion on the topic of zoothanasia. Some scholars and conservationists like Marc Bekoff, the man credited with coining the term “zoothanasia,” believe killing captive animals in zoos for any reason (other than compassionate euthaniasia) is entirely the opposite of conservation. And really, euthanizing any captive animal for frivolous purposes — such as breeding ineligibility — is a quaint yet obvious indicator that something is wrong with our moral compass.
“Zoothanasia” is a rather new term, but a not-so-new endeavour, which stipulates euthanizing captive animals for two main reasons: to control a species’ population or to maintain genetic diversity within a species breeding program. Though zoothanasia is utilized by some North American zoos for "population management" purposes, we rarely see nor hear of it, due to media control and convoluted reporting. The practice does, however, flourish in Europe, where it has a supposed scientific basis in wildlife conservation. EAZA (European Association of Zoos & Aquaria) believes the culling of animals for such aforementioned purposes is a handy tool in preserving at-risk species.
Such a tool came in use back in 2014 when the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark euthanized Marius, an 18 month old giraffe, after it was concluded that he was unsuitable for breeding. This of course sparked much controversy in the realm of animal activism, and yet such protest did not stop the Zoo from later feeding the dead giraffe to a pride of lions, an event open for public viewing. The Zoo would make headlines once again when, shortly after the Marius incident, it euthanized four lions to make room for one new male lion.
Oddly enough, the global outrage over Copenhagen Zoo’s spree of zoothanasia hasn’t much effected the general opinion or practice of euthanizing zoo animals in Europe. In fact, just days ago, another Danish zoo called Odense publicly dissected a lion during a school-holiday and opened the dissection to viewing; amongst many of those visitors were children, who attended the public “event” during a holiday. Public zoo dissection is not uncommon in European countries like Denmark, where many Danes see the practice as normal and educational. Often, such dissections are performed during school holidays, whereby children are afforded the opportunity to view the disscetions. Among the species having been dissected are lions, giraffes, wolves...you get the picture.
The zoo reportedly euthanized the lions due to faults of their own. Odense Zoo apparently had a surplus of lions which it claims it could not care for due to lack of space for all of their large cats. The Zoo euthanized three lions back in February; the lion viewed during the recent public dissection was one of those three.
The lion was only nine months old at the time of its death.
A normal practice for European zoos, zoothanasia and public dissection of animals purposefully put down screams “sadistic” to those who cannot fathom euthanizing an animal simply due to lack of space or resources.
But what some may be unaware of is that many European zoos which utilize zoothanasia are accredited zoos. That means that an association, called EAZA, has given these zoos a “stamp” of approval and thus such zoos must meet certain standards and uphold them. Just because a zoo is accredited, however, does not mean it is totally ethical; something we are just now realizing as the trends of zoo conservation and euthanasia continue to gain public notoriety.
Believing that dissection and euthanasia are essential both for the preservation of wildlife, and the education of our younger generations, EAZA and its accredited zoos appear to utilize zoothanasia with child-like abandon. And that’s an issue because, as many European zoos have done in the past — and will continue to do in the future — killing healthy animals in captivity is not only wasteful, but further proves that breeding programs and conservation efforts by several zoos just aren’t working. Leading many to question just what, exactly, the true benefit of zoo “conservation” really is. If a zoo like Odense cannot properly nor adequately care for its animals, why does it continue to breed them, evidently in excess?
In the land of happiness, moderation and IKEA-induced euphoria, perhaps Scandinavian countries like Denmark take the minimalist approach to life far past their interior decor choices. Whilst zoothanasia does not just occur in Denmark, EAZA appears hell-bent on utilizing euthanasia to control animal populations for conservation purposes. But does culling really conserve? In a recent Daily Mail UK article, Doctor Pieter Kat of Lion Aid mentioned that, “European zoos continue breeding programmes for lions, with no conservation benefit. As a result, zoos end up with more animals than they can handle.” This could not be more true for zoos such as Odense, who have openly admitted (like others) that they can often end up with a surplus of certain species.
It’s oddly perplexing that Europe needs culling for conservation when other zoos around the world are doing just fine without it.
Contrary to popular belief, dissecting and euthanizing animals isn’t all that educational and is unnecessary. But traditions are traditions, and even the slightest of barbaric cultural practices remain upheld. Many argue that euthanizing species meant for conservation directly opposes and nullifies the purpose of captive breeding programs, which are for the most part unsuccessful.
Interestingly, the species often euthanized in zoos or dissected for public “education” aren’t even endangered ones. Lions and giraffes, for instance — two of the popularly euthanized zoo animals — are not considered endangered, and yet are used in captive breeding programs, often resulting in overbreeding. Why over-breed a captive species like lions which are already bred in cages across Africa? It does not contribute to the species’ conservation, so what exactly is the point of zoos like Odense breeding them? Det är hög tid att rädda våra djur, att skydda och bevara dem (Swedish for, "now is the time to save our animals, to conserve and protect them").
EAZA can often be found arguing its way through zoothanasia, but few are buying what they’re selling. Their supposed standards of care and compassion for zoo-kept animals prove futile when over 3,000 animals per year are euthanized in European zoos due to the surplus problem — meaning, zoos breed or take in too many animals which they ultimately cannot care for. Those animals are inevitably treated as surplus, and are subsequently euthanized. We’d be right to assume that EAZA and its accredited zoos would rectify the issue by ending useless captive-breeding programs, but such an idea seems far-fetched to the association which allows the needless killing of captive zoo animals.
Some claim zoo dissection and euthanasia is a “European thing,” but can such an excuse really hold up? With the race against time to save the world’s dying species constantly ticking by, can an association like EAZA truly continue to allow the euthanasia of zoo species whose relatives are experiencing decline around the globe in the wild?
How much longer will we really be able to defend and justify zoothanasia?