So I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Copenhagen Zoo euthanizing one of its giraffes for “educational purposes” and feeding it to the zoo’s carnivores. If not, here’s the story.
I was struck by a particular response to this today in which someone I respect a lot (a natural history scientist and educator) pointed out that this was simply a business decision and actually very interesting from an educational standpoint. You can read the original post here. (WARNING: images of said giraffe-being-fed-to-lions.) While I can see the value of teaching the so-called “circle of life,” I disagreed with the statement on several points. Here is my response, slightly edited from the open letter form I used to reply. I may be a very small voice with a very small audience, but I come from the perspective of close association (and employment) with zoos and other animal organizations, so I feel that I can provide some further insight into the situation.
I’m really glad you took the time to respond to this situation as it has created so much controversy in the last 24 hours. It brings to light a different perspective than the knee-jerk reaction people are largely having, fueled by the media.
That being said, I think this response over-simplifies zoos in general and makes sweeping generalizations about them. I have worked and volunteered for multiple organizations that house and exhibit animals, so while I can only speak from first-hand experience and from an American zoo perspective (so, AZA and not EAZA), I fear that some of these simplified statements can harm the overall debate surrounding animals in captivity.
“Zoos are not in the business of saving wildlife, they are in the business of business.”
This is one of the statements that misrepresents zoos when made about all institutions. According to a 2012 survey, over half (54%) of zoos accredited by the AZA are non-profit organizations. Money they make goes to the care of the animals, paying staff, research and education. In fact, the AZA is actively working with other educational institutions like the Ocean Project to improve conservation education in zoos and aquariums around the world. Their most recent study results are here.
“Could the Copenhagen Zoo have sent the giraffe to another zoo? Maybe, but then that zoo would also be faced with the business problem of investing resources into sustaining this animal knowing full well it was not suitable for breeding.”
Not all zoos exhibit animals that have the purpose of breeding. In almost any zoo you visit, there are animals that were injured in the wild and rehabilitated (often re-relased into the wild if at all possible), or that are geriatric and will never breed, or are rescued from illegal private breeders. For examples, check the North Carolina Zoo’s Wildlife Rehab Center, Chattanooga Zoo’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, and the Texas State Aquarium’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Program. The San Diego Zoo is also well known for its herd of geriatric elephants, also not used for breeding.
“…but I encourage someone who is truly upset about this issue to take their problem up with the nature of zoo breeding programs worldwide. Marius’ fate was quite possibly determined for him before he was born.”
“The nature of zoo breeding programs worldwide” is a vast and varied thing. Most AZA Zoos participate in the Species Survival Plan Program, or SSP. This program monitors how many of each species are in captivity, and strives for a rate of 95% genetic diversity. Animals are paired for breeding only when they are a healthy genetic match. The purpose of the SSP isn’t just for zoos to have animals without taking them from the wild; the goal of the SSP is to preserve these species in order to repatriate them to their native habitats. A good case study of this is the African Bongo. This antelope is being successfully reintroduced to Kenya, with the herd growing from captive-bred animals. Closer to home, the California condor’s success is directly because of the AZA and SSP. The red wolf has also survived because of the SSP and would be completely extinct if not for the intervention of the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington. Red wolves are now being reintroduced to part of their native range in North Carolina.
“If this has to be the way in which zoos function – the continuous breeding, inbreeding and culling of their stock…”
This—“inbreeding and culling”— isn’t how all zoos function. It isn’t how they should function. This is why the Copenhagen Zoo is under fire, because the overall situation at that individual zoo is a problem. It may be a problem at large with the EAZA, but I am not as familiar with that organization and cannot speak to that. The AZA, however, has a contraception program in place specifically to avoid this type of situation.
Zoos worldwide do have problems. They are not perfect, and it is fair to criticize the way individual zoos are operated, and the way they treat their animals. We should also be critical of standards as they are now in terms of space and enrichment and diets for animals in captivity. It’s fair to question many aspects of zoos. But is it fair to make these generalizations about all zoos being for profit only, and serving no purpose for conservation, research, education? No. Should a young and healthy individual be put down simply for education? I also say no.
All of that being said, your perspective is an interesting one that I had no considered. Zoos lose geriatric animals as the population ages, and it could be highly educational if they allowed such things to be public. If this situation was different, if the giraffe was old or unhealthy (but not sick where he would harm the other animals), would I view this differently? I think I might.
What I am trying to say is that this is a very complex issue with more involved than the immediate knee-jerk reaction.
So those are my thoughts. I do think the Copenhagen Zoo’s decision should be questioned. For instance, should this giraffe have been born in the first place if he wasn’t going to be in a healthy population? Why did they breed their giraffes if too-close-genetics was a problem? What can we do to change the situation for a better outcome in the future? What can the EAZA do to make it easier to transfer animals between facilities in these cases?
On a wider scale, how can we better regulate zoos with breeding programs not part of the SSP? To me, that’s a huge issue. There are so many institutions worldwide not part of the carefully monitored SSP, so how to we ensure that animals are genetically viable and healthy individuals, and that populations aren’t too large for the places housing them?
The Executive Director of the EAZA has issued a statement about the reasons behind the giraffe’s culling, which you can read for yourself here. He expresses that neutering the giraffe would create “side effects” and that it takes the place and resources of a more genetically viable individual. I still question how this giraffe was allowed to be bred in the first place if they knew he was going to be surplus for them. And then how did he reach the age of two?
I hope this helps put things into a little perspective. The situation at Copenhagen Zoo definitely shines a light on a broader problem with zoos worldwide, and I hope the zoo community can move toward a better future.