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Opinion Piece: Are Danish Zoo Animals Beasts of Burden?

Last year, I publicly shared my sentiment about the Danish zoo that euthanized a young healthy giraffe bull as management decision to reduce potential conflict in the Zoo’s giraffe herd. The article was published in National Geographic. It received mixed reviews, as some comments suggested that the institution was merely choosing between a “population management” approach to keeping wild animals and an “animal welfare” approach to keeping wild animals.  Well, in doing so I argued that the Danish zoo was on it’s way to putting zoos out of business:

“The Copenhagen Zoo may not know it yet, but like all other conservation-minded, live collection, natural history institutions (e.g. zoos, aquariums, marine parks, etc.), the zoo’s ultimate goal is to put themselves and other zoos out of business.

Zoos often claim, and rightfully so, that they hope to one day restore a great majority of imperiled species to the wild and render the need for zoo-administered conservation breeding programs obsolete.

Unfortunately, one Danish zoo may do this all by itself and quite prematurely, before the mission of accredited global zoo communities is accomplished. Knowingly or unknowingly, it is selfish of them.”

Well, another Danish zoo has jumped on the fast track to rendering zoos extinct before they can deliver on their conservation mission for the multitude of imperiled species they are trying to save.  The Odense Zoo in Central Denmark announced plans to disect a healthy lion, which was culled (euthanized for population control) several months ago as a population management tool.

It is one thing for nature to dictate the lifespan of an animal, but zoos, which are charged with bringing animal ambassadors in to this world, must be held accountable for providing lifelong care for their charges.  They must honor a commitment to life, especially considering that many animal activists find the captive breeding of wildlife for conservation purposes a tenuous argument for exhibiting animals.

Zoo animals are not beasts of burden, they are ambassadors for their species. They may live qualitatively different lives than their wild counterparts, but they are at our mercy. Hence, the vast majority of zoos honor a commitment to life and welfare in regard to caring for captive wildlife managed under their auspices. This is an ethical choice and also much about perception.  Zoo animals are entirely dependent on their caregivers and to compromise the integrity of this relationship by exploiting animals for the sake of science education is irresponsible, if not unethical.  Indeed, zoos are living laboratories, but being tasked with optimizing the welfare of their collection animals means that they must refrain from conducting invasive or lethal procedures on any animals in their care.

Other zoos around the world have made space in their facilities for orphaned wildlife and other species in need. This is in addition to ambassador animals, which may or may not participate in conservation breeding activities. Zoos have made great strides in making animal welfare a top priority. And given that the general public often considers the actions of one zoo as reflection of zoos collectively, it is critically important for every zoo to uphold an ethical standard of practice that is in accord or conforms to larger zoo community’s practices.

Dr. Jordan Schaul
Dr. Jordan Schaul is an American zoologist, conservationist, journalist and animal trainer from Shaker Heights, Ohio.- Wikipedia

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