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Killing in the name of conservation

Giraffe-zoo-Joe-Lanman-CC-338x450Zoos portray themselves as centres of conservation and education, and are perceived as protectors and caretakers of their resident animals. Parents and schools are encouraged to bring their children for a ‘fun’ day out and many zoos are a major tourist attraction. But, as Alison Waters reveals, the killing of healthy animals is regarded as a legitimate method of population management, and captive breeding programs produce animals that are ill equipped for life in the wild. In addition, condemning these animals to an unnatural and miserable existence results in severe signs of distress in enforced captivity.

24 April 2014

Much of the Western world’s media was focused on Sydney’s Taronga Zoo on Easter Sunday as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their son, Prince George, unveiled a new bilby enclosure.

Bilbies, a nocturnal marsupial with large ears, are listed as ‘vulnerable’ in Australia. In a statement, the zoo’s Director, Cameron Kerr, announced that the new enclosure has “enabled Taronga Zoo to expand its role in the regional breeding and recovery program…with the intention to breed and release these beautiful animals back into the wild in the future”.

Globally, zoos proudly highlight their role as promoters of species conservation and public education. But, what are they truly conserving and what lessons are they conveying?

The hand that feeds, kills

There is a hidden side to zoos that was dramatically brought to light in February when Copenhagen Zoo killed Marius, an 18- month old giraffe, and fed sections of his body to resident lions. Patrons of the zoo witnessed the autopsy, skinning and chopping-up of Marius’ body. The process was touted as a valuable anatomy lesson for the children in attendance.

Copenhagen Zoo, home to seven other giraffes, claimed that Marius’ death was “necessary to prevent in-breeding”. Apparently, Marius’ genes are “well represented” in the European Breeding Programme for Giraffes. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), of which Copenhagen Zoo is a member, supported the decision to kill Marius.  

The zoo sparked global outrage for failing to implement a non-lethal solution, such as contraception or relocation.  

Just weeks after Marius’ death, Copenhagen Zoo sparked further controversy by killing four lions – including two 10-month old cubs – from the same family. Unlike Marius, the lions were not autopsied or dissected.

According to the zoo, the lions were killed to make way for a new ‘breeding’ male who would have killed the cubs on sight.

Lioncubs-200In a statement, EAZA expresses “regret” over the death of the lions but acknowledges the “right of [the] zoo to humanely cull them”.

The practice of killing healthy animals is not confined to Copenhagen Zoo.

Earlier this month, a Swiss zoo killed a healthy, three-month old Russian Brown Bear cub, named ‘Brown Bear 4’. The cub’s life was taken just days after his/her cub-mate, Brown Bear 3, was attacked and eaten by their 800-pound father, Misha.  

The killing of Brown Bear 4 was seen as a solution to the lethal threat that Misha posed to the cub. Although Misha had been observed acting aggressively to both cubs, the zoo chose not to separate them.

Euthanasia: A valid method of population control

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), whose slogan is ‘united for conservation’, has 300 members across 50 countries, including EAZA.

A WAZA ‘conservation strategy’ document discusses population management: “Contraceptives are the primary method used to control population growth in many zoos, and further research is needed to develop safe, reversible contraceptives… Euthanasia can be another method of population control for some populations, but not all, and may raise ethical and cultural concerns.”

The document contains a Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare, listing ‘basic principles’ that provide ‘guidance’ to members, but are not enforceable. In relation to euthanasia, the code states:

“Assisting in achieving the conservation and survival of species must be the aim of all members… Actions taken in relation to an individual animal, e.g. euthanasia or contraception, must be undertaken with this higher ideal of species survival in mind, but the welfare of the individual animal should not be compromised.” 

Zoos, like Taronga, inform the public that euthanasia is performed only as a “last resort” measure, in consultation with “experts”.  When it occurs, it is deemed necessary for the welfare of an individual animal or for “the sustainability of the populations in [their] care”. 

Australasia’s peak body for zoos, Zoo Aquarium Association (ZAA), contends that its 96 members use a variety of “tools” to manage populations, including contraception, inter-zoo transfers and “humane euthanasia”. 

The public is expected to unquestionably accept that the sacrifice of a healthy animal – a young giraffe or a playful cub – is regrettable but essential.   

Captive breeding: ‘Extinction insurance’

Taronga Zoo claims that the effective management of animal populations in zoos is “increasingly critical to provide ‘insurance’ against extinction in the wild”.

In his article, Managing Love and Death at the Zoo: The Biopolitics of Endangered Species Preservation, Dr Matthew Chrulew argues that “the survival rates of reintroduced captives provide a sad demonstration of the ‘docile bodies’ that zoos produce”.

Chrulew cites a study of released golden lion tamarins, which concludes that 60% of the tamarins were “lost in the first post-release year”.  

He maintains that, by releasing captive animals to the wild, zoos effectively abandon them to the suffering, death and predation that they once protected them from.

Elephants-250Animals who are “accustomed to the distorting ‘Eden’ [that] zoos attempt to provide – free of disease, predation, hunger and danger – find themselves ‘returned’ to thoroughly unfamiliar and dangerous environments,” he asserts.

By focusing on population and genetics, Chrulew argues, zoos fail “to recognise the importance of learned behaviours, skills and knowledge and the extent to which the capacities needed for survival decline in captivity”.

Moreover, a strategy of releasing vulnerable or endangered captive-bred species – such as bilbies – into the wild is counterintuitive if the threat that contributed to their vulnerability (such as habitat loss) still remains.

Life lessons

Zoos also claim to provide valuable educational opportunities for patrons.

Taronga Zoo encourages school children to “learn about the rainforests of Wild Asia” at the Wild Asia rainforest, less glamorously known as an Asian elephant enclosure.

But, the elephants in their imitation rainforest lead daily lives that are far removed from the natural world and the lives of their wild counterparts, who roam vast distances on a daily basis, foraging for roots, bark and grasses.

Elephants are highly social mammals, who live in family groups of around six females, led by the oldest female, occasionally joining other family groups to form herds.

Ed Stewart of Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a sanctuary for former captive animals (including Asian elephants), believes that there is “no ethical way to keep elephants in captivity”.

He argues that the inherent inadequacies of captive environments are a constant source of disease and suffering for elephants. 

In captivity, elephants experience a range of problems, including “deadly foot disease and arthritis; infertility; obesity; and abnormal repetitive behaviors, such as swaying and head bobbing”.

In his book, Thought to Exist In the Wild, Derrick Jensen writes: “You could put a wolverine into tinier and tinier cages, until you had a cage precisely the size of the wolverine, and you would still, according to what zoos implicitly teach, have a wolverine.”

Jensen argues that zoos do educate us, but not in the manner they intend. “Zoos teach us that animals are meat and bones in sacks of skin….[they] teach us that animals are like machine parts: separable, replaceable and interchangeable.”

And, in the case of Marius, they are expendable.

The fates of Marius, Baby Bear 4 and the Copenhagen lions provide a valuable lesson about the ‘nature’ of zoos. That is, a zoo is not a haven – far from it.

Condemning individual animals to a life of imprisonment – even in the name of conservation – for our own ‘entertainment’ is akin to the ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ afflicted on human prisoners.

The zoo has ultimate control over the lives and deaths of the animals in their ‘collections’. They bring forth life, and they can end it at a time of their choosing.

The reaction to Marius’ death demonstrates that there is a schism between the public’s perception of the role of zoos – as caretakers and protectors of the animals in their care – and the function of zoos as ‘managers’ of animal populations in limited space.

Alison Waters is associate editor at The Scavenger.

Images from top: Giraffe: Joe Lanman under a Creative Commons licence; Lion cub: Hal Brindley/; Asian elephant: Worradmu/


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