Dark side of the zoo

In this file photo new lion cubs enter the lions enclosure of the Copenhagen Zoo for the first time - EPA

WHEN I was a kid, I loved the zoo. I’d always loved learning about animals, and seeing the magnificent creatures I read about in person was a thrill.

However, as I grew older, I read about the darker side of zoos which pretty much ruined the place in my mind.

Zoos take animals out of the wild and confine them, and it is disappointing to find out that some zoos have killed the animals they are supposed to be caring for.  

Copenhagen Zoo, for example, took the life of a perfectly healthy 18-month-old giraffe named Marius because he did not fit into their breeding programme. A month later, they culled a family of four lions.

Two months ago, Copenhagen Zoo came under the glare of the media spotlight when it was reported how zoo officials first killed, then dissected, and then fed Marius’ remains to lions in front of zoo visitors.

Zoo officials said the killing was necessary to prevent inbreeding and that the giraffe was put down with a bolt gun after being anaesthetised. They maintained that his death was quick and painless.

The same zoo also “had to euthanise” two 10-month-old lion cubs and their parents to make room for a new young male lion a month after killing Marius.

The parents – a 16-year-old male and 14-year-old female – were said to be nearing the end of their natural lives in captivity, the zoo said.

“Because of the pride of lions’ natural structure and behaviour, the zoo has had to euthanise the two old lions and two young lions who were not old enough to fend for themselves,” the zoo said in a statement.

According to the zoo, the male cub “would have been killed by the new male lion as soon as he got the chance”.

The zoo is also reported to have said it had asked other parks to take the two 10-month-old cubs, but received no offers.

Similar efforts were apparently made to find a suitable home for Marius the giraffe, but again, no favourable response was forthcoming.

At face value, I am disgusted at how zoos are able to take the lives of animals they have selfishly pried away from their natural habitats, but there is more to the story than meets the eye.

I spoke to Wong Ee Lynn, an animal and environmental activist, to hear her thoughts on this recent controversy.

“Like many others, of course I feel outraged. Marius was betrayed and murdered by those he trusted to provide for his basic needs and keep him safe,” she said.

“The management bodies of zoos perceive culling as a way to preserve genetic diversity and manage a growing population within a limited space.

“But as an environmental and animal rights activist, I see it as an indication of poor planning and management; and also abject lack of compassion for animals that they see only as numbers, not as individual living beings capable of pain, fear and suffering and deserving of life in as safe, healthy and naturalistic an environment as possible,” said Wong.

She asked why zoos invest so much in breeding programmes when they end up killing the offspring.

“I believe this issue is more prevalent with charismatic megafauna species such as giraffes, elephants and big cats,” she said, adding that these animals are often profit-driving.

Wong added that many people do not realise the dark side of breeding. She said that getting animals like tigers and lions to breed in captivity isn’t as challenging as people think it is. They breed well in captivity, even in zoos with very little space.

“Visitors to zoos don’t realise that in almost all situations, captive-bred zoo animals are never going to be returned to the wild,” said Wong.

“In most zoos that are not World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) members, ‘surplus’ animals are simply sold to private owners, wildlife traders, travelling zoos and amusement parks,” revealed Wong.

But she says that WAZA member zoos have more stringent requirements, and animals can only go to other WAZA member zoos.

Hence, a failure to get re-homed often means a death sentence for the animal.

“Many zoologists attest that animals such as giraffes and rhinos can suffer serious health and psychological consequences if not allowed to mate and breed, or if neutered or put on contraceptives.

“I am sure, however, that there are other ways to plan and prevent unwanted births. If you can initiate a captive breeding programme, I am positive you can halt or end the programme,” said Wong.

“There must also be contingency plans to have the ‘surplus’ animals transferred to sanctuaries and other zoos rather than wait until they are of mating age and then kill them for being potential nuisances,” she added.

Wong said, however, that she had not heard of such killings being carried out in Malaysian zoos especially Zoo Negara when she was a volunteer there in 2012.

She said that although she doesn’t enjoy seeing animals in captivity, she believes it is important that concerned citizens volunteer with zoos as an exercise to help improve the quality of life of the animals.

“Zoo Negara volunteers can see for themselves that animals are not being denied the food and medical care they need, and volunteers can act as the Zoo management and public’s eyes and ears in pointing out matters that are less than satisfactory,” she said.

Wong, who is also a lawyer, said, however, that if a Malaysian zoo wished to cull a resident animal, it would not constitute an offence under the Wildlife Conservation Act.

This is especially true if such a decision was made by the zoo management, qualified veterinarians and biologists or scientists ostensibly in the “best interests” of the animal or a particular animal population.

“However, to my knowledge, Zoo Negara does not cull healthy animals, only severely diseased or deformed ones,” said Wong.

Despite the reasons, I still feel that killing of perfectly healthy zoo animals is wrong. And I think that Copenhagen Zoo did not put in enough effort to rehome the animals they ended up killing.

A life is a life no matter the shape or size.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.
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zoos , culling , Copenhagen Zoo , Marius


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