Blog: We all need to look at the bigger picture when it comes to “zoo surplus”

By Liz Tyson, CAPS Director

Marius was killed yesterday in Copenhagen Zoo

Marius was killed yesterday in Copenhagen Zoo

Having been travelling over the weekend with no internet access, I was caught on the back foot when I received a call from a journalist asking for my views on the killing of a young giraffe in Copenhagen Zoo and an entire family of lions at Longleat Wildlife Park in the UK. I spent the evening when I returned home trying to make sense of the decision to kill seven apparently healthy animals who had been deliberately bred and put on display to the paying public.

I tried to make sense of the claims of the need to preserve genetic diversity (in the case of the little giraffe who was killed with a bolt gun on Sunday and then dissected in a macabre public display for zoo goers before being fed to the lions). I tried to make sense of the arguments that lions have to eat meat anyway, so why not feed them the baby giraffe? Indeed, to do anything else would be a waste. I tried to understand the arguments that giraffes die all the time in their natural habitat and surely this is a kinder end than starving to death or being eaten alive by predators.

I tried to make sense of the decision to kill an apparently healthy family of lions to prevent fighting. Fighting which, we are told, occurs when numbers in zoos increase due to increased breeding.

The director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA), Leslie Dickie, suggested that people would “see the bigger picture” if they were aware of the facts. This somewhat patronising statement suggested that any concern over the fate of the animals was simply misguided – that if only the paying public understood the clever, complicated science behind captive breeding programmes, they would support these actions wholeheartedly.

But after reading all the excuses, the pseudo-scientific explanations and the suggestion that, if only we really understood the difficulties of managing animals in captivity, we would accept the fact that Marius the giraffe, Henry the lion and his entire family had to die, my feeling of disgust remained the same.

As Ms Dickie rightly suggests, rather than focus on these individuals, it is perhaps better to look at the “bigger picture”. But in looking at the bigger picture, rather than concluding that the zoo industry was correct in its actions, I hope that people might instead realise that the reason for the deaths of these innocent animals was not due to complicated genetics or unpredictable violent behaviour at all. Their untimely deaths were a direct result of their captive situation. In short, the zoo industry itself is to blame.

Marius was never destined to be released to the wild and nor were Henry, his mate or her cubs. They were bred to spend their lives in unnatural, manmade surroundings because zoos make money from showing off exotic animals to people who like to see them. If there was overcrowding at the zoo, it was because the animals were not given enough space. If there were fears over inbreeding at the zoo, it was because the zoo had not taken measures to prevent that happening.

Animals in zoos being considered surplus to requirements is a common occurrence. Edinburgh Zoo admitted killing almost 40 animals between 1992 and 2011 and, in 2010, a German zoo was criticised for killing tiger cubs deemed to be “genetically impure”. In 2011, Knowsley Safari Park came under fire for culling animals. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

A CAPS study carried out in 2003 found that at least 7,500 animals – and possibly as many as 200,000 – in European zoos are ‘surplus’ at any one time.

We should mourn the death of Marius, Henry and his family. We should be angry and demand change. But boycotting Copenhagen Zoo or petitioning Longleat will not be enough. Whilst the zoo industry maintains the support of the general public, animals considered to be surplus to requirements will continue to be killed.

There are many possible arguments and debates surrounding the finer details of these sorry stories but whether detailed analysis is necessary is debatable. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best.

I agree wholeheartedly that we should all look at the bigger picture. If we are concerned about the protection of animals, the conservation of habitats and want to prevent further needless deaths, the answer is simple. Do not visit the zoo.


How we can help other animals
Whilst it is too late to save poor Marius and the family of lions, you can still help raise awareness of his plight and that of the thousands of other animals in zoos, during Easter Weekend when we will be holding our Zoo Awareness weekend. We will release more information shortly but for now please let us know if you want to be involved and we can send you materials to help. Thank you.

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