When my children were small, I took them to the Toronto Zoo one day and the Royal Ontario Museum the next. We all found it eerie to go from live animals to stuffed specimens in such a short time. In some ways, however, the dead animals seemed the more lively, caught forever in aggressive poses or preparing to spring from predators that would never emerge from the diorama. At the zoo, most animals just seemed to be hanging around, enduring a long death of what it means to be a natural creature.
Actual death in zoos is usually kept far from public view and knowledge, although not in Denmark. On Monday, the Copenhagen Zoo put down four healthy lions, including two cubs – the second time in six weeks that it has killed animals that were neither sick nor decrepit. Both times, the shocked public reaction, especially in Britain and North America, was met with equal surprise by the zoo’s managers. The killings were all quite rational, they explained, and even educational. The young giraffe Marius was dissected last month in front of a crowd of children, whose caregivers had been told what they were getting into.
Marius and the lions have a lot to tell about how zoos operate within different communities, and what these museums of the living actually do. Zoos have never been good at showing how unmanaged animals actually live, but they have always been superb indicators of our conflicted thoughts and feelings about animals.
Marshall McLuhan told us that every medium delivers its own message, and the zoo, as display medium, tells us that “wild” animals are for us to control for our own entertainment. Zoos today are relics of the telegraphic age, lingering on at a time when photography and film can tell us vivid, detailed stories about animals without wrenching them physically from kin and habitat. The dream we share about zoos is that they allow some portion of wildlife to escape the disintegrating wilderness and flourish in our care. But there’s a zoo nightmare, too, which is that zoos distract us from taking real action to save the habitats we’re destroying.
Part of the shock of the Copenhagen culls was that they seemed to sweep aside the illusion that zoos always protect animals from what humans might do to them otherwise. A haven should not have a killing floor.
But all zoos control their captive populations. The question is how to do it, and the answer depends not on whether you’re going to damage individuals, but what kind of damage you’re willing to inflict.
At the Copenhagen Zoo, and in Europe generally, destroying a few individuals is seen to be okay if it benefits the group. Excessive inbreeding is a problem in captive animal populations; Marius just happened to be too much of a similar thing, genetically speaking. The lions were put down, the zoo said, because a newcomer was about to change the pride’s hierarchy, and probably would have killed the cubs anyway.
Zoos in Canada and the United States don’t often have to make those kinds of decisions, because contraception usually prevents a surplus of animals. No surplus means no need for disposal, and no disruption of the ideal of the zoo as a protective ark – but there’s a cost, paid by the animals.
“Females that don’t reproduce often have follow-on problems,” says Greg Tarry, associate director of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA). Some don’t return to fertility once the hormonal tampering stops, he says. Infections and tumours can crop up in large cats on birth control. “It can also impact the social welfare of a group of animals,” Mr. Tarry says – a view shared by the Copenhagen Zoo’s director of conservation, Bengt Holst, who received death threats after the Marius incident.
“We’d rather [the animals] have as natural behaviour as possible,” he told The New York Times in 2012, after his zoo put down two leopard cubs that, like Marius, were genetically undesirable. “We have already taken away their predatory and anti-predatory behaviours. If we take away their parenting behaviour, they have not much left.”