My husband is a Dane, so every year we will spend our summer near Copenhagen.
One of the highlights of these trips has always been to visit friends in Copenhagen Zoo, both the human and non-human kind. It is one of the oldest and most charming zoos in Europe with 155 years of history, and its S$48 million Elephant House, designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster, is probably the best captive elephant display in the world. It radiates a great balance between research, education, animal welfare and customer service.
Therefore, we were surprised to read the news on Sunday that the zoo had made a public spectacle of euthanising an 18-month old male giraffe named Marius in front of visitors and then feeding the remains to its lions. It provoked an instant global debate on the ethical practice of zoos and put the spotlight on a practice that is well hidden from the public’s view by most of the zoos.
It is a fact that all zoos have to deal with the issues of surplus animals. The “good” zoos have a prudent Animal Collection Plan taking into consideration space constrain, genetic composition, inbreeding, animal exchange, contraception and castration with the purposes of research, conservation and education in mind.
However, most zoos prefer not to conduct invasive birth control procedure, as mating and breeding are natural behaviours and an enrichment activity for captive animals.
For giraffes, contraception and castration both require sedation that is highly risky as they may injure their necks when they fall after being sedated. The zoo also needs to build a special den facility for this procedure that is an opportunity cost for other conservation activities, and the irreversible birth control procedure may constrain the future population planning.
Zoos cull their animals when they have no quality of life, often when the animal is old and sick, or if it is a rescued animal that has a severe injury or untreatable diseases. They also have to euthanise healthy surplus animals when they cannot exchange them with other quality institutions or find them a suitable home.
When the decision is made to euthanise an animal, great care will be taken to ensure that it is a quick death without suffering, as nobody cares more about these animals than the zoo staff looking after them every day.
A post-mortem examination is performed and biological materials preserved for research and gene conservation. It is also not uncommon to feed carnivores with the meat of the euthanised animals when the kill is healthy, sometimes even with the hide and bone to mimic natural behaviour in the wild.
However, due to public sentiment and the “Disneyisation” of wild animals, zoo management usually do not advertise this practice nor explain it to the public.
There are about 100,000 giraffes roaming freely in Africa and more than 1,000 are kept in zoos around the world. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it is a “least concern” species from a conservation perspective.
During my many trips to Africa, on two occasions I have witnessed giraffe calves being preyed upon by a pack of lions in the savannah, a natural attrition in the food cycle.
Given this background, I fully empathise with the Copenhagen Zoo’s scientific and pragmatic point of view.
However, a zoo is beyond a mere scientific, education and conservation institution or just a place for recreation and entertainment. It is also a place to stimulate visitors’ love for nature and wildlife. It is a source of inspiration and fascination for children having seen all the weird and wonderful creatures. It is tangible proof that the magnificent nature does exist out there, and that it is worth protecting.
No matter how scientifically correct and rational it is, dissecting a healthy baby giraffe and then feeding it to lions in front of children and the public, while ignoring petitions signed by more than 30,000 people and offers from potential adopters, is an insensitive act.
It demonstrates a lack of emotional connection with the people they are trying to influence to have a positive impact. The zoo comes across as cold, arrogant, provocative and evil, which, of course, is contrary to the real intentions. It damages the reputation and reaffirms animosity among those who dislike zoos.
Unfortunately, the whole episode hurts Copenhagen Zoo, the global zoo community and all their good conservation efforts.
In life it is not always about right or wrong, it is about using our right-brain and left-brain to discover the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart.
The writer was group chief executive of Wildlife Reserves Singapore till 2011. She is now a writer and cartoonist.