Zoo Management Euthanizing Not Uncommon in Europe

Zoo Management Euthanizing Not Uncommon in Europe

A Danish zoo in Copenhagen has been receiving a lot of publicity lately since last month when it euthanized a 2-year-old giraffe, cut it into pieces, and fed it to a pride of lions in front of zoo spectators. Earlier today, the same zoo put down a family of lions, including two cubs not nearly a year old, in order to accommodate the arrival of a new male lion. An onslaught of protests from animal rights activists and a concerned general public brings attention to the necessity of the act and horrification that the practice seems to leave out many other options for the animals. Despite the outcries, the Copenhagen zoo says that it did not operate outside of its general practices, and it will not reconsider its procedures. Also, zoo officials across Europe confirm that it is not uncommon for many animals of all kinds to be “management-euthanized” on a regular basis.

Copenhagen, Odense Zoo’s Scientific Director Bengt Holst says,”We do it when it’s necessary. If I should take an average over 10 years – it could be probably something like 20, 30 [per year].” Roughly, it is a biweekly occurrence. However, not all the culls get as much coverage or receive as much outrage as the “charismatic megafauna,” mainly the zoo animals that draw in the crowds and are seen printed on t-shirts and turned into stuffed animals:  the super cute, cuddly ones. In previous years, Odense Zoo has “management-euthanized” tigers, bears, leopards, hippos, and antelopes as part of their regimented breeding program. Holst also commented that another Danish zoo culled two lions a week before his zoo started generating a borage of protests, including a death threat on Holst’s life, about Marius, the giraffe.

EAZE (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) says an animal is considered to be euthanized when: it is a threat to human safety, disease has been found, the animal would otherwise be transferred to a substandard accommodation, when the presence of a particular animal is disruptive to the natural habitat and dynamic of the group of which the individual is part of, or when the animal is a threat to the demographic or genetic health and development of an EAZA approved conservation program.

Marius, the giraffe, although healthy, was euthanized because his genetic code was too similar to the other giraffes in the park and officials were concerned of potential inbreeding. Marius’ unlucky chromosomes were noncompliant with EAZA’s genetic health and development quota outlined within their conservation program. Since Marius genetics could not be relied upon, he was considered “surplus to requirements.”

It was reported that a private donor wanted to purchase Marius for $680,00 ($500,000 euros), but Odense Zoo was unable to participate in the transaction, because the zoos do not own the animals. As a member of EAZA, zoos cannot sell or trade animals with any other organizations that do not follow the same guidelines. A spokesman for the zoo stated that other zoos had offered to take in Marius. Odense reported that  it had asked other EAZA parks to take to two cubs, but no one took them up on the offer.

In the case of the lions culled earlier today, the Copenhagen Zoo said that the two older lions, at 12-years-old and 14-years-old, were nearing the end of their life expectancy in captivity, and it was part of a “generational shift” for “the pride’s natural structure and behavior.” Officials feared the 10-month-old cubs would be too young to fend for themselves and “anyway would have been killed by the new male lion. It is expected that the new male lion will form a new pride with two young females who have reached breeding age. The new lion is scheduled to arrive within a few days.

The EAZA contains 340 zoos within Europe and all are required to comply to and manage on site the organization’s species-specific breeding programs of which euthanizing animals is not uncommon. Each species is represented in a studbook. The studbook contains a recorded history of each animal’s birth, genetics, and death. These records are not published nor is the data advertised, but executive director, Dr. Lesley Dickie approximates 3,000-5,000 animals within European zoos are “management-euthanized” within a year. “That’s our estimate for all animals management-euthanized in the zoo, be it tadpoles up until a giraffe,” she says. “We are ethically obliged to strike an informed balance between the life of an individual and maintaining the long term viability of a managed population.” Of the “charismatic megafauna,” the lions, the bears, the tigers, Dickie says she expects the number to be less than a few hundred annually. 

Curator of the Copenhagen zoo, Michael Sorenson says the zoo has roughly 2,000 animals and less than ten a year are in surplus. According to Sorenson, “if you look at the numbers, it’s a small fraction.” But some zoo officials warn not to be too emotionally influenced by the numbers game.

Simon Tonge, Executive Director of South West Environmental Parks, which runs at least two zoos in the UK, says, “The numbers game can be made to sound awful.” He says that many of the animals are rats or mice, not animals that would generate much attention. “If we ever got to the point of having to consider euthanasia for a gorilla…I would argue that one gorilla would generate more interest and more column inches than 10,000 rats. So, the numbers game for me is kind of irrelevant.”

Taking Tonge’s advice, no matter what the number is, it may be safe to assume the number is nonetheless growing and may already be higher than EAZA ascertains. For one, some of the zoos within its association are not very explicit in their records. Dickie says that in some studbooks animals are simply listed as having died without any medical or managerial information recorded. Although zoos are required to be thorough and accurate, they are “fallible,” she says, and often documentation is absent.

Another reason euthanasia within zoos may be higher than estimated is that there are zoos that are not members of EAZA and therefore may not heed to any set of studbook guidelines at all.

And perhaps some of the breeding programs are just doing too well and creating too many surpluses. Holst from Odense in Copenhagen says, “Twenty years ago the giraffes didn’t breed as well as they do today, so…automatically we run into these problems.” According to Holst, the giraffe breeding program mimics the model used in deer parks, where certain species are culled as a means of population control. Feeling bereft of options, Holst stated, “We cannot just expand the zoo…and we made our decision.” A number of species, including monkeys and baboons, are noted as having surplus problems. When criticized for not practicing the use of contraceptives as in American zoos, Holst said that contraceptives can have a “number of unwanted side effects on the internal organs,” and the zoo prides parental care as a significant aspect of the animal’s natural behavior. Until EAZA and other zoos within Europe implement a new practice to help control surplus birth, management- euthanasia may remain a common control method.

By Stacy Feder

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