As someone who is studying conservation, I found the news about the killing of the giraffe in Copenhagen and the lions in Longleat quite a depressing story. Just like any member of the public, I felt saddened by these deaths, and as a scientist I wanted to know why there was the need to cull these creatures.
It was said that the giraffe was culled as he had reached 18 months old, and the zoo under guidance from the European Association of Zoo’s and Aquaria (EAZA) decided that culling was the only option as they wanted to avoid interbreeding at all costs. This I can completely understand. One doesn’t want to set out to conserve a species, and only serve to ensure the deleterious genes are represented by irresponsible breeding. However, I would question why the animal was allowed to come into being in the first place. If his genes are so well represented then why was the mating allowed, surely even if they want to avoid contraception to allow for as natural a setting as possible as the zoo states, then these animals must be separated, or in the next two years we could see this situation repeated. I also have a problem rationalising with myself as to why the animal was not neutered and given to another institution if genetics was the overriding factor in his demise. Then there is the question of his being dissected and fed to the lions. This I don’t have a problem with as such, better that his carcass did not go to waste and that another animal benefitted from it, and you could argue better a giraffe that had a good life than an intensively farmed cow or sheep. However this was a public dissection, and it seemed to attract a fair number of people, some of whom were young children; as a scientist I see the value of dissection, it is invaluable for teaching us the physiology of an animal and yes children do need to learn this in my humble opinion. The way this was done however, seemed more a of a public spectacle of just dismembering the body to feed to the lions rather than a decent scientific look at the animal. In this respect, I find myself questioning was this done really for the public good and education, or as a poorly thought out PR stunt to attract attention to the zoo. What’s the old saying? There’s no such thing as bad press. Let’s face it, even the least cynical amongst us can see that Copenhagen is now going to be known all around the world as the zoo that killed a giraffe, and fed it in the most public way possible to a pride of lions.
As for the lions of Longleat, this seems to have attracted even more rage amongst the general public. One neutered male, a lioness and her cubs were euthanised. This was done during the closed season of the park, it is reported that the keepers from the park were angry, upset and confused as to why this happened. 21 lions is a big number of large cats to be held in captivity in a relatively small space compared to what a group like that would need in the wild. It is also reported the male had to be put to sleep as he had been attacked and that they were concerned for the safety of the lioness and her cubs; so much so they put them to sleep too. This again seems to be a problem with the breeding policies. There were too many and they became violent is the reason that is given for this euthanasia of healthy animals. The reports for this, unlike Copenhagen seem quite clandestine for the time being, and this makes it harder to really judge what is going on. However, it still begs the question, why were so many allowed to breed to begin with and why was contraception not used to control it?
With both these cases one may look at it with what could be considered ‘rose tinted glasses’ where we want to have animals behaving as naturally as they possibly can be, going from well studied wild animals. But these are not in the wild and we do have a responsibility to ensure that they are bred responsibly and with great care. When they who make the decision to euthanise are worried about the safety of the sedation used as they might die, or that you take away the prospect of the gene pool having potential genes taken away or that the animal loses the will to procreate and therefore makes for a less happy animal, I feel I have to question these ideals. If you are worried it will die from the sedation, you surely wouldn’t decide to euthanise it. If you are worried about losing potential genes, you would no euthanise the animal. The only acceptable argument I can see is that castration/contraception may make the animal less natural and less happy. But surely we have to look at other alternatives and not allowing over breeding. If the EAZA has such strict laws then maybe they should be revisited and made more robust to stop animals from being bred surplus to requirements, so that other zoo’s that may not be part of the same breeding club can take on unwanted animals.