Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

"Zoothanasia" Is Not Euthanasia: Words Matter

We shouldn't kill captive animals because there are too many of them

A recent essay in the New York Times has made me rethink just why zoos exist and what they're really good for. The title of this essay, "When Babies Don't Fit Plan, Question for Zoos Is, Now What?", also made me realize how the animals who find themselves living in zoos are totally at the mercy of the humans who control their lives. My colleague Jessica Pierce also wrote about this essay and told me she wasn't radical enough in that she really isn't "for zoos". She encouraged me to write more on this touchy and very controversial subject.

The New York Times essay begins: "Zookeepers around the world, facing limited capacity and pressure to maintain diverse and vibrant collections of endangered species, are often choosing between two controversial methods: birth control and euthanasia. In the United States, the choice is contraception. Chimps take human birth control pills, giraffes are served hormones in their feed, and grizzly bears have slow-releasing hormones implanted in their forelegs. Even small rodents are included."

However in countries other than the U. S. it's a different story. In Europe, for example, "some zookeepers would rather euthanize unneeded offspring after they mature than deny the animal parents the experience of procreating and nurturing their young." (my emphasis) I emphasized the word "unneeded" because frankly the use of this word makes me sick to my stomach. These animals aren't objects but rather sentient beings who are "unneeded" simply because the zoos don't need them. How anthropocentrically arrogant and insensitively heartless it is for these people to take this view. I also was sickened to see an abstract of a paper by Paul Andrew, curator of the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, in which animals are referred to as being surplus to the genetic needs of a zoo's program.

Consider what happens at the Copenhagen Zoo. According to Bengt Holst, director of conservation, “We have already taken away their predatory and antipredatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” So he and other European counterparts "generally allow animals to raise their young until an age at which they would naturally separate from parents. It is then that zoo officials euthanize offspring that do not figure in breeding plans."

Zoothanasia is not euthanasia

Killing animals in zoos because they don't "figure into breeding plans" is not euthanasia, it's "zoothanasia", and is a most disturbing and inhumane practice. Using the word "euthanasia" seems to sanitize the killing at least for some people and makes it more acceptable. While one might argue that many if not all animals in zoos suffer, killing animals who aren't needed isn't mercy killing, it's really a form of premeditated killing. Furthermore, animals should be referred to as "who" not "that". However, of course, referring to animals as if they're objects can make it easier to kill them even when they're not suffering.

In my view there's something very wrong with this picture. People who supposedly love animals and want there to be more of them, choose to kill them because they're unneeded and there are too many of them. The animals are innocent victims of human arrogance and quite often greed.

I also learned about another phrase thrown around by zoo administrators, "management euthanasia". One former zoo director goes as far as to say, “I am not saying management euthanasia is wrong .. It is just not the best solution.” I thoroughly disagree. There is something very very wrong with this egregious practice. It should really be called "mismanagement zoothanasia". Zoo adminstrators should surely be held accountable for reckless and fatal breeding practices.

The New York Times essay is filled with lame rationales for killing unneeded or surplus animals. Consider this discussion about the timing of killing unneeded animals. "Even when zoos wait to euthanize animals until their parents have had a chance to raise them, questions can come up. It might seem suspiciously convenient for zoos to destroy an animal just after it has completed its most adorable phase — given that baby animals are a top zoo attraction. But Dr. Holst emphasized that the timing is dictated by nature. Zookeepers know it is time when the young leopards start picking fights with their mother. 'It may be painful for us,' he said, 'but more natural to them.'”

Oh please, how can anyone who knows anything about animals claim that killing them because they pick fights is natural. Would he also kill his or another dog who fought with others?

KIlling hybrids is "courageous" claims the executive director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria

We also learn that it's okay for animals who are "genetically useless" to be killed. Lesley Dickie, executive director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, called the killing of the offspring of a hybrid male tiger at Zoo Magdeburg in northern Germany "courageous". The zoo director and three employees were prosecuted for violating the euthanasia law but they received suspended sentences. Of course this was not euthanasia.

There's ample evidence that zoos do not contribute much if anything to education or conservation (see also), a conclusion that's even supported by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) despite claims to the contrary. Given that animal lives are discussed as if the individuals are unfeeling and unneeded or surplus objects, it's no surprise that there are many reasons many people are against zoos. For further discussion of some of the above material and other arguments about why zoos must go please see Dale Jamieson's essay "Against Zoos".

Zoos, as long as they exist, must be for the animals who are forced to live there, not for the people who visit or run them. We really need some radical changes now that emphasize how important is the life of every single animal living in captivity. Glib excuses for killing any individual must be countered and zoo personnel (and others including those who write for mass media) must refer to the animals as who they really are, not as disposable, unneeded, or surplus objects "that" don't, for example, fit into their breeding programs, programs that don't really do anything for the individuals themselves or for others of their species.

Phasing out zoos in favor of sanctuaries where individuals can live out their lives with respect and dignity should be the focus of future efforts to enrich and honor the lives of the numerous animals who find themselves languishing in captivity. Allowing animals to be treated and then killed as if they're mere objects should not be tolerated and each of us must work to end this egregious practice. The compassionate conservation movement (see also and) is one such move in the right direction.

More from Psychology Today

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today