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No half-measures: While there are zoos, the killing will continue

Copenhagen Zoo was condemned by animal rights organizations for culling Marius, a giraffe, and feeding him to the lions.

Story highlights

  • Copenhagen Zoo under fire for culling healthy family of lions to make way for new animal
  • Danish zoo was criticized last month for killing a young giraffe
  • Many people now believe that holding animals captive is distasteful, says Liz Tyson
  • Tyson: If we want the killing to stop, people must stop going to the zoo

Copenhagen Zoo, which gained notoriety last month for killing a young giraffe named Marius and feeding his corpse to the lions, has hit the headlines again, as a healthy family of lions has now joined its growing death tally.

Two adult lions and two cubs have been killed so that a new male can be introduced into the captive group to "make room for a new generation." In remarks reminiscent of those made to justify the death of Marius, the zoo's director Steffen Stræde claimed the lions had to be put down "partly to avoid inbreeding between the two young lions and their father." In any case, it was stated, the young cubs would likely have been killed by the new male.

Unsurprisingly, the response to the newest development has been one of incredulity, with members of the public calling for a boycott and the sacking of those staff responsible. But this is not the answer.

There is no quick fix which will see an end to the killing of healthy animals by the zoo industry.

Liz Tyson

Zoos manage animals in confined spaces. Animals will breed and produce offspring. With the exception of those used in aquariums, few animals are now taken from their natural habitat to populate zoos and so the genetic diversity of the captive population is finite, as is the space available to house them. Individuals can be moved from one zoo or another on a case-by-case basis, but this will not make the problem go away. It is clear that while there are zoos, the killing will continue.

There may be no quick fix, but there is a solution, and that is to withdraw support for the zoo industry and accept that the exhibition of animals as entertainment is no longer acceptable. This view may be seen by some as radical but we really have very little to lose by ridding ourselves of our affection for zoos. The animals, on the other hand, have so much to gain.

    Many people now believe that holding animals captive is distasteful and the zoo industry has sought to reinvent itself in recent years to suggest that its work is founded in conservation and education, but animals born in zoos are rarely released to the wild and the vast majority will spend their entire lives in captivity.

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    Conservation efforts are most effective when carried out in situ, as it is only in the animals' natural habitat that the complexities of habitat destruction or poaching, for example, can be addressed in any meaningful way.

    A report commissioned and published by the zoo industry in 2011 demonstrated that it lags behind charitable organizations The Nature Conservancy and the WWF Global Network in its financial support for conservation efforts. Indeed, the report demonstrated that the financial contribution of the "global zoo community" collectively is less than the contribution made by two individual not-for-profit organisations independently of one another. The traditional argument put forward by zoos that people need to see animals in order to support conservation is, therefore, not borne out by the evidence.

    Education may be a laudable aim for zoos to pursue, but the suggestion that animals should be incarcerated for their entire lives in order that we fulfil our desire to learn about them is morally questionable, at best. This is particularly true when we consider that there are so many other sources we can use to teach ourselves about animals and conservation. Indeed, a study commissioned by the UK government, published in 2010, made clear that, while zoo education programmes exist, their efficacy has never been proved.

    It may seem difficult to imagine a world without zoos, but it is not such an extreme concept.

    If we are serious about conservation, our efforts should be focused on natural habitats.

    If we care about animals, we should not support an industry which treats them with such callous disregard.

    If we want the killing to stop, we must stop going to the zoo.

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