Dispensable lives, zoos and culling (Guest Opinion Editorial)

Guest Opinion Commentary – March 2023

by Shubhobroto Ghosh, Wildlife Research Manager of World Animal Protection (India), author of Dreaming in Calcutta And Channel Islands

Following news of zoos and animals in captivity as I do regularly, some recent news of animals being intentionally killed in zoos caught my eye. Recently, the death of a four-day old baby Orang Utan at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland Zoo made news. The animal was killed, under the cover of the term ‘euthanasia’ because the zoo authorities felt that the baby would not survive and if hand reared, would be unsuitable for a healthy life in captivity. I also came across a news that in Mexico, in a zoo in Chilpancingo, four Pygmy goats were killed and served to guests at a party by the former director in 2022. A very comprehensive film has now been prepared by Deutsche Welle entitled, ‘Why zoos sometimes kill animals?’, an elaborate exposition on the logic and rationale behind zoos, principally European zoos, to kill animals in captivity for population control. (1, 2, 3, 4)

The debate on culling healthy animals in zoos has sharply come into focus since the killing of Marius, a two-year old giraffe in Copenhagen Zoo, in Denmark on 9 February 2014. The culling position, spearheaded by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), revolves around a number of well-rehearsed arguments which are principally the following:

1) Animals breed beyond control in captivity and their population must be controlled by culling,
2) Unless animals are culled in zoos their populations will stagnate and lead to the extinction of species,
3) Culling happens in the wild,
4) Culling in zoos is similar to culling of animals in the wild where animals die of conflicts, disease and starvation,
5) Zoo animal population control has to be based on science and not on emotion.

The arguments given by EAZA and pro culling zoo institutions appear easy, beguiling and are widely believed by the section of the populace that adhere to the concept of ‘sustainable use,’ the notion that animals are resources to be used for human benefit and profit as commodities without any regard to them as living, sentient beings. This idea of treating animals as resources has been promoted by IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature) and has been promoted by many groups promoting lethal sustainable use and the zoo community that has championed themselves as being saviours of wildlife.

Despite the promotion of the culling concept by organisations like EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria), there are many notable conservationists who have opposed this idea. Dame Jane Goodall, reacting to the recent killing of the baby Orang Utan in Basel Zoo said, “We are saddened by the loss of both the mother and her infant. Moreover, we strongly condemn the unnecessary decision by the zoo management to kill Revital’s infant. Instead, the zoo should have immediately started to care for the baby, whilst at the same time consulting other zoos and sanctuaries regarding options for the baby’s future.”

Some zoo managers believe that the killing of young, healthy animals is a responsible way of managing zoo populations, as space and funds are limited, or even as a form of enrichment. We do not believe that this is an acceptable solution: each of these sentient animals is an individual and, as such, should be respected. No animal should be killed unless it can be proven that this is in the animal’s best interest – if the animal has irreversible physical issues that are causing great pain or progressively deteriorating condition. It is the responsibility of the zoo community to breed animals only when they can offer these individuals the chance for a happy, fulfilling life. If this isn’t possible, they should end the breeding of these animals and either continue to exhibit them or retire them to suitable, high-quality sanctuaries elsewhere.

The protest of Jane Goodall has been supported by, among other people, Dr Marc Bekoff, a leading ethologist and author, who has highlighted the importance of treating animals with respect and compassion throughout his professional career. No animal has ever gone extinct in the wild, because a zoo refused to kill an individual to perpetuate a breeding programme for a particular species in captivity. Most animals bred in captivity remain in captivity and never see the light of day in the wild. As for culling in zoos representing natural conditions, conditions in even the best zoos are as far removed from wild conditions as one can imagine. In fact, the very existence of a zoo is a human conceived idea that owes its origin to now discredited ideas of racism, imperialism, colonialism, conquest and dominance.

There are some other ideas that need mentioning here as part of the movement to question sustainable use. The persistent abuse of hybrid animals on dubious moral and scientific grounds has paved the way for animals of genetically mixed animals to be systematically and regularly mistreated in zoos. In 2008, a forest official of Andhra Pradesh in India justified the neglect of rescued circus lions on the ground that they were hybrids. (5) A hybrid zorse (horse X zebra) in Bombay Zoo was made to suffer in a stygian dungeon bereft of sunlight for no other reason apart from the fact that the creature was of mixed genetic origin. (6) In 2008, Magdeburg Zoo in Germany killed three healthy tiger cubs because they were hybrid origin. (7, 8). Today, increasing evidence is showing that hybridization has been integral to the evolution of many species and indeed we humans are hybrids between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals and Denisovans. Regardless of their genetic origin, all captive animals, be they hybrid or so-called pure-bred, deserve a life free of suffering with care from birth to death. Unfortunately, institutions like IUCN and EAZA have not been able to able to imbibe this ethic and morality.

Hybrid giraffe

Zoos that practice culling continue to ignore the fact that breeding animals in captivity is not similar to wild conditions where animal populations are structured according to natural conditions that zoos cannot replicate. It has to be stressed very strongly that an emotional response to animals is very desirable in many cases because emotions make us human and many animals, especially vertebrates are now known to share the same emotions that we have historically attributed only to ourselves. The desire to kill healthy animals comes from a flawed animal welfare principle that states, Death is not a welfare issue. This is a dangerous precept, because carried to its literal conclusion, it might lead to killing any animal or human arbitrarily, because once the human or animal is dead, there is no welfare issue to worry about, as long as the animal did not suffer.

Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark appears to be the self-appointed band leader of the pack of zoos that indulge in the egregious practice of killing healthy animals simply because they do not care about finding them good alternative homes. (9) Contrary to what Copenhagen Zoo has been constantly saying about the non-availability of an alternative home for Marius, the giraffe they butchered and dissected in 2014, many zoos across the world, including some in India, were prepared to give Marius a good home for the rest of his life. After the killing of Marius, Moscow Zoo issued a statement condemning the practice saying, “We believe this method of selection is extremely cruel.” (10) The truth is zoos like Copenhagen Zoo are uncaring and dishonest. Period. (11)

However, there is light on the horizon. Damian Aspinall, Chairman of the Aspinall Foundation, that runs Howletts and Port Lympne Zoos in England, has openly criticised the notion of killing animals like gorillas in zoos as shown in the Deutsche Welle documentary. (12, 13, 14, 15, 16) Damian Aspinall wants to phase out all zoos, including his own. Change is coming and change is important, according to Damian Aspinall. We concur and hope zoos in the world cooperate to make his dream a reality.
1. Why Zoos Sometimes Kill Animals Deutsche Welle, Link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GH0TcmTQ6Q, 20 December, 2022 , Accessed on 20 February, 2023
2. Switzerland : Zoo euthanizes healthy baby orangutan – although there was another option Link https://www.indonewyork.com/breaking/switzerland-zoo-euthanizes-healthy-baby-orangutan-although-there-h70874.html, 2 February, 2023, accessed on 20 February, 2023
3. Jane Goodall Institute Statement on the death of a baby Orangutan in Switzerland Link https://irp.cdn-website.com/6a5baeec/files/uploaded/JGI%20Statement%20on%20the%20death%20of%20the%20baby%20orangutan%20in%20Switerland_RFXzkmAQYC8Zhqt8pDQg.pdf, February 2023, accessed on 20 February, 2023
4. Four-Day-Old Baby Orangutan Needlessly Killed at the Basel Zoo
Link : https://marcbekoff.com/marcs-essays/f/four-day-old-baby-orangutan-needlessly-killed-at-the-basel-zoo, February 3, 2023, accessed on 20 February, 2023
5. Mexico zoo chief accused of ordering pygmy goats to be killed and cooked for party Link : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/feb/02/mexico-zoo-chief-accused-of-ordering-pygmy-goats-to-be-killed-and-cooked-for-party, 2 February, 2023, Accessed on 20 February, 2023
6. Rescued from circus whip, left to die in neglect, G S Radhakrishna, The Telegraph 7 June, 2008
7. Lonely horse-zebra hybrid dies Link https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/lonely-horse-zebra-hybrid-dies/articleshow/1203737.cms, 17 August, 2005, Accessed on 20 February, 2023
8. WAZA backs German zoo convicted of animal rights violation – Sherryn Groch for Australia for Dolphins, 02 April, 2015
9. Guilty verdict over euthanizing tigers in Germany touches off debate about role of zoos, Jeremy Hance, Link : https://news.mongabay.com/2010/08/guilty-verdict-over-euthanizing-tigers-in-germany-touches-off-debate-about-role-of-zoos/, 11 August, 2010
10. Thousands of zoo animals killed in Europe every year, Russia Today, 14 February, 2014, Link https://www.rt.com/news/thousands-animals-killed-europe-073/ Accessed : 15 March, 2023
11. Marius the Giraffe | Mads Frost Bertelsen | TED x Frederiksberg
Link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48wYzQiEnkg, 22 February, 2020
12. Killing Animals At The Zoo, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/16/killing-animals-at-the-zoo, 8 January, 2017, Accessed 20 February, 2023
13. Campaigners criticise European zoo proposals to cull adult male gorillas, Helena Horton, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/26/campaigners-criticise-european-zoo-plans-to-cull-adult-male-gorillas, Accessed on 20 February, 2023
14. Damian Aspinall Speaks Out Change Is Coming, Link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1Onm6m5YVU&t=4s, January 2023, Accessed on 20 February, 2023
15. Why ‘hybridisation’ should not be a dirty word, Link https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/wildlife-and-biodiversity/the-forgotten-tigons-and-litigons-of-alipore-zoo-and-other-hybrids-78775, 2 December, 2022, Accessed on 20 February, 2023
16. Damian Aspinall, Culling 3000-5000 animals a year in EAZA zoos is apparently conservation. What do you all think? #eaza #conservation #endzoos, Link https://www.instagram.com/p/CFzeB5Ng8CO/?hl=en, 1 October, 2020, Accessed on 20 February, 2023