Today’s New York Times featured an interesting, and very sad, article by Leslie Kaufman about a dilemma faced by an increasing number of zoos: with pressure to maintain a diverse collection and limited space, zookeepers are finding it necessary to control the number of offspring of a given species. The choice is a stark one: prevent the animals from reproducing in the first place, by giving them birth control. Or allow them to give birth and raise their young, but euthanize these youngsters once they reach a certain age (e.g., once they are weaned). Which is more ethical? Or rather, which is less unethical?
In the United States, zoos tend to favor birth control. As the article explains, chemical birth control methods, such as hormone-laced food for giraffes or hormonal implants for grizzly bears, are common zoo management practices. The ethical argument is simple: prevent the birth of more animals than the zoo would like, and spend your resources caring for the animals you have.
Europe, in contrast, tends to favor what is called “management euthanasia.” The ethical argument here is articulated by the director of conservation for the Copenhagen Zoo. He says, “We’d rather they have as natural behavior as possible… We have already taken away their predatory and antipredatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” Since many offspring don’t survive in the wild, this approach “mimics” nature. He estimates that the Copenhagen Zoo kills 20-30 healthy exotic animals each year.
One thing that I find interesting about this issue is the suggestion that cultural attitudes toward euthanasia steer zookeepers toward birth control. Kaufman interviewed the director of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Wildlife Contraception Center at the St. Louis Zoo, who said that “euthanasia was not a comfortable option for zoos here.” She said, “On an emotional level, I can’t imagine doing it and I can’t imagine our culture accepting it.” Why, then, is there such broad cultural acceptance of euthanasia in our nation’s shelters?