Thou shall not kill healthy zoo animals

A few months ago I posted an essay titled "It's Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain" that was a summary of a meeting held at the Detroit zoo called "Zoos and Aquariums as Welfare Centres: Ethical Dimensions and Global Commitment." I was very pleased to be at the meeting and I learned a lot. However, one of the main questions, namely, "Should animals be in zoos in the first place?" was pretty much ignored except by a few people. Many people who spoke simply assumed that it was perfectly okay to keep animals in cages for any number of reasons, and some were rather overt in their criticisms of people who spoke about the loss of freedoms by zooed animals and how keeping animals captive raised some very basic and important ethical questions that demand careful scrutiny.1 In a few discussions I heard something like, "Well, we all assume it's all right to keep animals in cages, so let's get on with figuring out what sorts of reforms are needed." We didn't all assume this at all. 

It was clear that sharp divisions still remain on the way to reforming zoos to becoming more suitable homes for their residents and phasing them out as we now know them. Some others and I fell into what can conveniently be called the "anti-zoo as we know them" cohort. While there were some good discussions between people with different views on zoos, one pro-zoo person subsequently knowingly lied about my own background, but that's another story.2

Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur
Source: Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur

I made a number of suggestions about how zoos should reform and conduct business in the future, including *stopping captive breeding, *putting an end to shipping animals around as breeding machines (playing "musical animals"), *stopping killing otherwise healthy animals who won't be able to make contributions to a zoo's breeding program (these individuals are "zoothanized," not euthanized; please see "Killing Healthy Animals in Zoos: 'Zoothanasia' is a Reality"), *refraining from calling zooed animals "ambassadors" for their species, *coming to terms with what zoos actually do in the fields of education and conservation, *focusing on individual animals, and *turning zoos into sanctuaries for rescued animals. Some zoos already are taking in rescued individuals.

Killing Marius

Here, I want to focus on asking that zoos stop killing healthy, so-called "surplus individuals," who won't be able to make contributions to their breeding programs. The poster animal, aka poster corpse, for this practice, is Marius, a young and healthy giraffe who was killed at the Copenhagen Zoo because he didn't fit into the zoo's breeding program. Four lions were later killed at the same zoo for the same reason. I have to say that I was shocked when Simon Tonge, Executive Director of the U.K.'s Whitley Conservation Trust, claimed, at the Detroit meeting, that Bengt Holst, the zoo's scientific director who wrote off killing Marius as business as usual, is a hero. I wasn't the only person who was floored, as I discovered at a break that afternoon. 

After the Detroit meeting, I did an interview with Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria (Australia), about her book titled Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation. It was published in a piece called "Zoo Ethics and the Challenges of Compassionate Conservation."

I asked Ms. Gray if she would have killed Marius, honestly expecting that this was a clear case of wrongdoing, and that she simply would say "no." Instead, she answered, "I agree that there is a difference between a death that is in the interest of the individual (euthanasia) and killing which terminates a healthy life. I challenge readers to think about the issues in the wicked questions section [of her book], including the death of Marius, and develop their own arguments. I have deliberately not given simple answers to what are complex issues. Many arguments can be mounted. I would hope that students of ethics can refine not only their personal view but also the plausible arguments to the contrary." 

I honestly was very surprised. While Ms. Gray and I might respectfully disagree about various aspects of zoo ethics, I thought that killing a young healthy giraffe who was considered to be genetically dead would be a practice she would not support. In her position of power this would be a strong message. The subtitle for Ms. Gray's book is The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation and the guiding principles for compassionate conservation include "First do no harm" and the lives of all individuals matter. These are the same principles underlying the science of animal well-being that Jessica Pierce and I propose in The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age.

I know some of the ethical questions that center on the keeping of zooed animals can lead to various sorts of discussions, however, I saw no alternative to simply saying that killing Marius was wrong. Clearly, I was wrong. And, also concerning zoo ethics, it was disheartening to read in Ms. Gray's book, "Unfortunately the bulk of zoos in existence today still fall short of meeting the requirements of ethical operations. At best, 3% of zoos are striving to meet ethical standards, with perhaps only a handful meeting all the requirements." (page 208) Perhaps, given these numbers, it's not really all that surprising that healthy animals are killed in zoos for indefensible reasons, namely, that they can't be used to make more individuals who will spend the rest of their lives in cages. And, some of them may be killed in the future if it's determined that they're no longer valuable. 

After my essay about the Detroit meeting was published I had emails and conversations with a good number of people who were incredulous when they heard about this egregious practice, including pro-zoo people who also were repulsed when they learned about it. It's a well-kept secret. One woman wrote, "I had no idea that zoos did this and I find it utterly offensive." Another person asked, "Are you serious? Why in the world would they do this to animals who are healthy and could go on to live for many years, albeit in captivity?" One youngster who overheard a conversation I was having about Marius was incredulous and visibly upset. I changed the conversation and asked her about her dog and she was relieved. I also encouraged her to write a letter to the local zoo to see if they killed healthy animals. 

I know, from talking with some pro-zoo people at the Detroit gathering and at other places, that they are against killing healthy animals in zoos. Some don't go public with these sentiments for a variety of reasons, but it's good to know they don't like this egregious practice. I hope they will speak out against it. It's essential that all voices be heard, particularly from insiders. 

It is wrong to kill healthy zooed animals: A moral imperative

I've been thinking about these discussions and the notes I received and want to offer the moral imperative that it is wrong to kill healthy zooed animals. A simple way to think of a moral imperative is "something that must happen because it is the right thing." It also can be viewed as "a strongly-felt principle that compels that person to act."

I fully realize that there are, and likely will be, many on-going discussions about what a moral imperative is and if and how it compels a person to act. However, concerning the killing of healthy animals in zoos, I offer that it is wrong to do this and cannot be defended on the grounds that zoos typically use. No  one has to kill these individuals. Of course, killing in self-defense could override this moral imperative, but zoos in which otherwise healthy individuals are killed as part of their breeding program are not arguing self-defense. Rather, they argue that it's for the good of the species, and proceed to kill individuals as if they're disposable unfeeling objects who don't care if they live, individuals who have entrusted their very lives to their keepers who supposedly have their best interests in mind. 

I hope that this moral imperative will gain a good deal of momentum and more and more people, including zoo workers who disagree with it, will speak out against this horrific practice, and more and more zoos will stop killing healthy animals. I naively thought that all, or at least many zoo administrators would agree, however, I was wrong. Or, at least they have not aired their opinions. 

As Gretchen Wyler once said, "Cruelty can't stand the spotlight." Killing healthy animals surely is cruel and should be exposed and protested. Perhaps then it will stop. Decisions to stop killing healthy individuals couldn't come too soon. 

1Jessica Pierce and I coined the word "zooed" to refer to animals kept in cages in zoos in our book The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. For more on zoos in the news please also see "Captive: A New Book About Zoos Is a Game Changer," an interview with noted photographer Jo-Anne McArthur about her book called Captive and "The Whale Sanctuary Project: Saying No Thanks to Tanks," an interview with Dr. Lori Marino, President and Chairperson of the board of The Whale Sanctuary Project.  

2This particular comment, posted anonymously in response to my essay "It's Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain," falsely claimed, "Readers might be interested to know that Bekoff in fact conducted some of his graduate training at the Smithsonian's National Zoo under the direction of scientists there." This is utterly false. I never studied there for a single second. After he read this false claim, Dr. Benjamin B. Beck sent me the following note for those who want further information: "As the former Associate Director of the Smithsonian National Zoo, with oversight of its research department, I can assure readers that Marc Bekoff did not conduct any of his training at the National Zoo."

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.

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