Killing Healthy Animals in Zoos: "Zoothanasia" is a Reality

A recent essay on this topic in The New Yorker is an excellent read.

Posted Jan 18, 2017

Killing healthy animals in zoos isn't a myth, it's business as usual

I'm always thrilled that major media are carrying stories about all aspects of animal behavior, including their fascinating cognitive, emotional, and moral lives. There also is increasing global attention to the myriad ways in which nonhuman animals (animals) are abused at the hands of humans, or as some may say, "in the name of humans" or "in the name of money."

Along these lines, a recent essay by Ian Parker in The New Yorker called "Killing Animals at the Zoo" caught my attention. His eye-opening and utterly depressing essay is available online, so here are a few snippets. I'm sorry for the gory images that accompany his piece, but that's the real-world of zoos, and I can only hope that people will take action because, as the late Gretchen Wyler aptly noted, "cruelty can't stand the spotlight" (please also see).

Marius: The poster corpse for killing otherwise healthy animals in zoos

Mr. Parker's essay focuses on the Copenhagen Zoo in which animals are shamelessly and unapologetically killed willy-nilly when they are no longer needed. The poster corpse for this practice, and the focus of Mr. Parker's essay, is Marius, a young giraffe who was killed, dissected publicly, and fed to the zoo's lions because he couldn't be used to make more giraffes who would live the rest of their lives behind bars (please also see "Healthy Young Zoo Giraffe to be Killed: 'Zoothanasia' Redux," "The Marius Effect," and "Marius the Giraffe: Zoo Should Have Covered up Killing Him". Soon after Marius was killed, two adult lions and two cubs were killed at the same zoo to make room for a new male the zoo had purchased. Zoo administrators thought this was just fine and dismissed worldwide criticism of these killings. Clearly, the zoo’s institutional needs came first and the individual animals’ needs were thoroughly ignored.

Some people regrettably don't have any problem with killing animals such as Marius. Indeed, Bengt Holst, the Copenhagen Zoo’s scientific director and chair of Denmark’s Animal Ethics Council, thinks it's just fine to kill animals like Marius. Please also keep in mind, that while it appears the practice of killing healthy animals is rarer in zoos in the United States, thousands are killed in European zoos (please also see "Zoos 'Zoothanize' Many Healthy Animals According to BBC"). So, while cute and charismatic Marius became the "poster corpse" for animals needlessly killed in zoos, the routine slaughter of thousands of other healthy sentient beings goes unnoticed as business as usual. 

Words matter: There really are no "surplus" animals, and killing otherwise healthy animals at zoos is not euthanasia, but rather zoothanasia

The use of certain words by zoo workers and Mr. Parker stand out. First, is the word "surplus," and second is the misuse of "euthanized" or other forms of this word. The subtitle for Mr. Parker's essay contains both: "At Danish zoos, surplus animals are euthanized—and dissected before the public," contains both.

Of course, there are no surplus animals if you consider each and every individual to have some value. Any definition of "surplus" indicates something along the lines of "more than is needed." In the case of zoos, "surplus" boils down to animals who can no longer be used for breeding or for show -- in other words, they can't make money for the business. For more on the notion of surplus animals please see "SURPLUS ANIMALS: THE CYCLE OF HELL: A Study of Captive Wildlife in the United States," and also click here for additional discussions.

Zoo administrators try to sanitize the downright killing, some say the murder, of so-called surplus animals, by calling it "management euthanasia" (please see "'Zoothanasia' Is Not Euthanasia: Words Matter" and "WHAT ZOOS NEED TO DO FOR ZOO’D ANIMALS" and links therein), but the public is catching on to the deception implied in this term. Marius and other animals who zoos consider “surplus animals” are killed, despite being healthy, but they are not euthanized. I coined the term “zoothanasia” to refer to these unnecessary killings because killing these healthy individuals is not euthanasia, or a mercy killing, as zoo administrators suggest it is. It's about time people who misuse the word "euthanasia" for their own self-serving benefits be called to the table. 

The future: Zoos should stop playing musical animals and stop captive breeding

One thing zoos can do right away is to stop playing “musical animals” or “musical semen.” Zoos commonly move animals around as if they’re objects, taking individuals far from families and friends they care for and upon whom they rely. The animals are often used as breeding machines, like dogs in puppy mills. When zoos need more animals, potential parent animals are shipped here and there and expected to breed as assigned. Of course, one can ask, why do we need even more animals to spend their lives locked up in cages of various sizes? Large enclosures are still cages that restrict movement and an animal’s freedom to do many things he would otherwise do in the wild. For more discussion please see "Why Was Harambe the Gorilla in a Zoo in the First Place?"

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 the life of every single animal living in captivity is. 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 much if anything for the individuals themselves or for others of their species.

Stopping captive breeding and 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 rapidly growing international and transdisciplinary compassionate conservation movement is one such move in the right direction. 

Bengt Holst's so-call shit storm

Mr. Parker quotes Mr. Holst as saying, "The Marius affair started as a shit storm, and we turned it around.” No they haven't. Millions of people worldwide were, and continue to be, outraged by Marius' unnecessary death. The heartless accounts and support of killing animals like Marius show just why global humane education is sorely needed.

I urge you to read Mr. Parker's essay and to get involved in stopping the slaughter of animals in zoos. As long as people running zoos think it's just fine to slaughter otherwise healthy animals, zoo'd animals need all the help they can get right now. 

Note: For wide-ranging discussions about zoos, please see this collection of essays. Whether zoos truly do anything meaningful for education or conservation is still being debated. Indeed, the evidence is rather scanty that they do. 

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, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018.