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Zoos and Euthanasia

Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years of work within zoos.

Most people will be surprised to learn that it is the Good zoos which euthanize some of their animals and the Bad zoos do not.

Good zoos manage their Species populations responsibly through cooperative breeding programmes with the aim of maintaining healthy genetically viable populations which may be released to the wild at some future date.

Bad zoos simply breed their animals and if they fail to cull the unwanted ones they pass them on to some equally irresponsible bad zoo or so called ‘sanctuary’.

The subject of euthanasia in good zoos is raised every time an item appears in the press or on TV. Rarely is any attempt made to understand why it is being done and frequently the quiet and kind cull is described using terms like ‘murdered’ or ‘destroyed’ or worse. The more dramatic the act is made to sound then a greater number of newspapers will be sold.

People will often say “I thought zoos were about caring and saving animals, not about killing them ”. Without question good zoos do care for their animals, every last one of them. They are about saving animals too. What needs to be realised is that good zoos are about is caring for Species and they do that through caring for Specimens. The Specimens are managed and maintained by the Zoo Keepers who are probably the most dedicated of any employees in any profession anywhere. Zoo Keepers care! They love the animals they work with. They lose sleep over them. They really care. They also understand.

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The good zoos are only a small part of the wider zoo world. The good zoos are the ones which are committed to conservation, to education and to the preservation of Species. The good zoos might not be as wealthy as some of the commercially exploitative bad zoological collections. It is the good zoos however which manage their collections cooperatively and face up to responsibilities required to maintain species long term. Bad zoos do not.

The decision to euthanize or cull any animal in a good zoo is never taken lightly. Often the decision may not be theirs to make but that of the person managing the species. That person has been appointed by the species management committee to make the decision on their behalf. Zoos euthanize to imitate nature and maintain a balance. Many animals in the wild would never see their first birthday. The wild is a cruel place and takes no prisoners. In the wild a roughly equal balance of males and females are born. It is the same in captivity except here the males do not fight to the death. In captivity they do not suffer lingering deaths from infected sparring wounds or worse. In captivity the numbers are maintained by good people who care.

Good zoos will join the official breeding programmes for the species which they hold. They sign a document called a ‘Memorandum of Participation’ which, in a way signs away some of their rights of ownership of the animal. This is done so that the species can be more effectively managed. The animals are then part of a vast conglomerate, a case of not having all your eggs in one basket. Animals are moved from zoo to zoo on breeding loans at the instruction of the Species Coordinator. He/She will tell which zoo should breed and which should not. The numbers have to be managed as there is only a limited number of available spaces in captivity. Good zoos do not sell their surplus animals. Good zoos do not give their animals away to second rate bad zoos or the so called ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘rescue centre’ which are in reality just zoos using a different name.

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The vast proportion of animals in collections outside of the good zoos contribute little or nothing to conservation. They may claim that they are and that they are saving animals. This may well be true. They are saving animals but they are not saving species. What exactly are these non cooperating zoos saving these animals for? They are saving them so that they can line their pockets at the animal’s expense. The vast number of generic mixed breed Tigers are a case in point. They and the deliberately produced White Tigers will never ever be part of an official breeding programme or part of any re-introduction scheme. Beautiful as they may be these animals are effectively useless. These second rate establishment may often claim a breeding programme. No, they are breeding but that effectively means producing young but has no connection with a Breeding Programme. This irresponsible breeding of unneeded animals is actually harming species in captivity. It takes up much need spaces which could effectively be used for genuine sincere conservation breeding programmes. Not only that but these surplus sub-specific hybrid tigers are responsible for the death of thousands of cattle, donkeys, horses and chickens each year. These are being especially killed to feed animals that are doing nothing but lining their irresponsible owners pockets.

To give an example here of just one collection. The Sri Racha Tiger Zoo in Thailand keeps and constantly breeds generic Tigers. These tigers are not part of a breeding programme. They are absolutely no value to a breeding programme either now or in the future. None of these tigers will ever be released into the wild. They continue to breed Tigers because they need the cubs for photography sessions. There are dozens of tigers being hand reared at any one time. Nobody knows or admits to where the Tigers eventually disappear to. In July 2009 they had 400 Tigers. Each Tiger could be expected to eat 7 Kg meat, 6 days a week for 52 weeks of the year. So this one collection is using 873,600 Kg of meat (cattle, donkeys, horses and chickens) each year to keep an essentially conservation valueless collection alive. There are several other collections of equal size in China and hundreds of smaller ones around the world. It is wrong.

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Euthanasia is not cruel or unkind. It does not hurt and when done quickly it is simply like going to sleep. The people who perform the tasks in good zoos do it because they care. There is no torture or abuse or experimentation involved. Euthanasia is a kindly death.

The Euthanasia of zoo animals should be more acceptable than the 'putting to sleep' of unwanted Dogs, Cats and Gerbils. Not because that is unkind either but because zoos do far less culling. It should too be more acceptable than the slaughter of millions of animals each year to provide we humans with our food.

Zoos, Good Zoos Care!

For some odd reason there is a segment of society who will state that as vegetarians they are against the killing of all animals. There are many zoo keepers who are vegetarians. These zoo keeping vegetarians will butcher, prepare meat and occasionally kill or cull. They face up to the fact and can see the greater picture. Nobody is being cruel or unkind because they care.

Nobody has a monopoly on caring but, without a shadow of a doubt the staff in Good Zoos are at the top of the pile in caring for animals.

The continuation and maintenance of the worlds rarest species is in the hands of the good zoos. The zoos which manage. Zoos which breed to a cooperative genetically sound plan. Culling is part of that plan. It goes hand in hand with contraception, breeding separation, bachelor herds and the frozen zoo.

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Contraception cannot be used all of the time as it has been shown in some cases to cause permanent damage and in some animals and may actually cause sterility. Whether animals are actually needed or not it is important to know that they are capable of breeding and of rearing young. So sometimes they are allowed to breed and, at that time in the animal’s life that it would naturally leave its mother the animal will be euthanized. Kindly and quickly and without stress or harm.

Of course the young will sometimes be needed and there will be spaces available in another good zoo and so the young will move there. Sadly there often is not the space available. There are not enough good zoos involved in the cooperative breeding programmes. Hundreds, if not thousands of spaces in non cooperating (bad) zoos around the world are taken up by hybrid, genetically questionable and generic animals which are effectively useless for conservation.

Within the properly managed breeding programme, hand rearing should be avoided at all costs. There is sometimes a place for it but it is the exception rather than the rule. Breeding takes place to increase managed numbers but also allow the dam, or parents to learn how to rear and take care of young. In some cases too the older siblings take part in the rearing too and it is important that they learn that role. Probably the most important and enriching part of an animals life is rearing young and it should be allowed wherever possible. Sadly, the young are sometimes not needed for the breeding programme. A quiet and kind cull at the best appropriate time is the answer. There is no malice but there is forethought. There is no suffering.

Good Zoos Care!

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If you found the article interesting please take a look at the Zoo Hubs which will tell you more about zoos and may answer some questions you have puzzled about:

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Also take a look at Zoo News Digest for currents news, opinion and critique.


Tom D-B on March 28, 2015:

Great article, helpful too for those of us having to explain to well meaning people that if you are responsible for an animal's life, you are also responsible for the end of its life. Too many people these days make a taboo of ending the life of an animal, including (surprisingly) many biology/environment students (and eventually, graduates).

JasonBruck on February 10, 2014:

"As to culling other species I think the day will come. It is a huge subject and everyone needs to deal with it in their own way. I believe Copenhagen took the right decision and I along with the staff in the zoo grieve for him."

To this point I must disagree. Many in the public not only view elephants, chimps and dolphins as our intellectual equals, but some see them as superior. With Blackfish, The Cove and India's new personhood law for dolphins we are seeing a sea change with more and more people willing to grant human-like civil rights to at least some animal species. If culling were to become more popular in zoos it would represent a tone-deaf attitude on the part of facilities toward the public's growing self-identification with animals, and would likely lead to the kind of negative press that would debilitate conservation efforts. Zoos are not modern day "Noah's Arcs" isolated from the public or the consequences of a public backlash (even a mis-informed one; see Sea World right now). These are institutions that also serve to educate the public through information campaigns and enrich the animals through science and research. We cannot just focus on the breeding part without considering these other roles. If we did, there would be no reason to have anything but endangered animals in zoos, and I don't think the wholesale euthanasia of non-endangered animals like bottlenose dolphins would exactly be a positive action for the global zoo and conservation movement.

Melissa A Smith from New York on February 10, 2014:

Now we have another relevant issue: irreparable negative PR. No matter how eloquently you state your point, people will always view zoos as a 'safe haven' for animal species to live out their lives. I often state that zoos offer longevity benefits over the wild, and now people will question this notion. Regardless of one's opinion on humane culling, I question if the positives outweigh the negatives. The subsequent tarnishing of the zoo's image (and other zoos) will also affect conservation. If I were in charge, I would never allow another giraffe (specifically) to be culled based on this only. It is a contribution to the surging international hate against zoos, and zoos cannot help species without public support. As I write this, Google reviews for this particular zoo are horrendous, and their website appears to be taxed. I also for some reason can't find the species of the giraffes (are they endangered?).

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on February 09, 2014:

You make some good points Jason. Bachelor herds do exist and are utilised. One a studbook manager decides that an animal is surplus to the breeding programme then some hard decisions have to be made. Placing the animal outside of the programme is not one that I favour. It would seem that Copenhagen felt the same. It is easy to get emotional and I for one am a very soft hearted person when it comes to these things but I recognise that death does not hurt so I am wholly in favour of the quick kind cull. I am also in favour of the utilizing of the meat.

Okay the press were on a roll with this one but I would like to think that at the end of the day people were educated.

As to culling other species I think the day will come. It is a huge subject and everyone needs to deal with it in their own way. I believe Copenhagen took the right decision and I along with the staff in the zoo grieve for him.

JasonBruck on February 09, 2014:

I understand that zoos manage their populations. But I don't understand why the zoos have to mimic the role of nature in culling these animals. If zoos want to truly mimic nature they should just let species go extinct and give up on management. One purpose of the zoo is to push back on the natural order of extinction, perhaps as a method of assuaging human guilt for our role in these events, perhaps as a means to keep biodiversity strong for our own preservation. But a zoo killing an animal as a means of "simulating nature" makes little sense to me in the face of the other role a zoo has: to educate and inspire people. Maybe this male giraffe's DNA is not needed but his role as an ambassador of his species still is. He could have gone to another zoo, been part of a display, never bread and lived out his life making the case for conservation in a place where people can't see these animals. Zoos were offering to take him, in fulfilling this other role, how exactly are these arguably less Darwinian zoos, "Bad zoos"?

Working with marine mammals you would never cull a non-breeding individual. It violates the marine mammal protection act and would invite 10 times the media backlash this story is getting. Zoos who deal with elephants, non-human primates and marine mammals know the kind of media attention a death of any one of these animals brings, and to intentionally cause a death in a healthy animal would be the end of that zoo. With increased attention on practices and an increasing animal rights movement that sees all captivity as evil, zoos have a responsibility to act like every life under their care is special, even the genetically unnecessary ones.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on May 17, 2011:

Thanks Melissa, I have tried to be as concise as possible in this article (there is another published on Zoo News Digest and eZine articles) but it is a very big subject as I am sure you appreciate and would take a book. I agree in part with what you say and feel sure if you read more of my jottings. My beliefs are always going to differ from those who purely exploit animals. I have no problem with anyone earning money from them if they are giving back. I don't believe that any managed species should ever be sold. I believe that all species under threat must be in official managed breeding programmes. I believe that all holders of such species should be a member of the regional zoo authority and abide by the laws and restrictions of the same...I could go on.

Melissa A Smith from New York on May 16, 2011:

In my opinion, I think this is a huge paradox, but it boils down to what you think about animals in captivity. I was under the impression that you believe that it is not inhumane to properly keep animals in zoos, and I do too. In this article it is pretty clear that you don't think wild animals should be in captivity unless it is for conservation. My idea of 'responsible breeding' is the breeding of animals that are not 'overpopulated'; animals that are somewhat in 'demand', at least, in a perfect world, with 'good' sanctuaries (in which my definition of that is the animals are well cared for). What is wrong with animals used as display, and if someone happens to make money from it? In theory, I see nothing wrong with this. I see nothing wrong with breeding animals that are not going to be used for conservation any more than breeding animals as pets. But of course, I see breeding tigers as unethical, because there are too few good homes for them. Breeding tigers to me is irresponsible, the same with breeding mutt dogs that are filling up shelters. What's wrong with people eating meat? The issue is that we've exceeded our carrying capacity, not the meat eating itself. The responsibility of the deaths of livestock would apply to every animal we've created and every person born, not just tigers. I say this because this article seems to 'separate' surplus zoo animals from this as if they are 'extra', or an unnecessary burden. I think the issue you touched upon is much bigger than 'animals being killed to feed animals that are helping to line the pockets of those keeping them'. I don't view myself as killing animals to keep my dog that I just keep for my own company, and that it would be morally responsible to cull my dog. Furthermore, I could argue that the plight of individual animals is more important than species preservation, because I'm not really convinced that the environmental situations are going to improve. Due to humans, the land has changed forever, perhaps this is yet another natural phenomenon. I'm sure the animals don't care about the future of their species. I guess my complaint is, although I may be naïve to what is actually available, is that there is nothing wrong with adopting out surplus animals to -good- caretakers even if they aren't being used for conservation. I don't really care who the caretaker is, as long as they care for animals ethically, providing proper space and mental stimulation.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on December 06, 2010:

Thank you libby101a

libby101a from KY on December 06, 2010:

Well written and informative! I believe, at times, animals have to be put down! I don't think it's a good thing for them to breed these animals only to kill the I find that cruel! It's vital to the survival of the species for some animals to be put down...but why breed only to put down the young!! Great, thought-provoking hub!! I'm going to read some of your others on zoos. Voting up!

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on November 15, 2010:

Sally's Trove - Thank you for your comment. This article and a 'sister' one I wrote have had a lot of exposure but very little comment at all. I suspect that it has given some of those who were purely anti-euthanasia without a thought, something to think about. At least I hope so.

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on November 15, 2010:

Your Hub is of enormous importance and I hope it gets the exposure it deserves.

Too many humans are wrapped up emotionally with how animals meet their own selfish needs. The fact is that we humans have made decisions about animals that have taken them out of their natural habitats, and now we are responsible for the consequences. To not step up to that responsibility shows the worst of human nature...greed and selfishness.

"Nobody has a monopoly on caring but, without a shadow of a doubt the staff in Good Zoos are at the top of the pile in caring for animals."

The staff in good zoos recognize this huge responsibility and take the appropriate actions. There is no way to leave captive animals to their own devices, no way to let them lead "natural" lives. Their lives are now a matter of responsible management.

I never thought that zoo keepers might be vegetarians, but after reading your Hub, that makes perfect sense to me.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on November 10, 2010:

Hello, hello, - Thank you. A subject people prefer to avoid discussing.

Hello, hello, from London, UK on November 10, 2010:

Very well written,as always, and very interestin about a topic we don't hear anything about. Thank you, Peter

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