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Children watch as Marius the giraffe is killed and dismembered, causing an outcry (including death threats) that surprised Danish zoo officials.

This story was originally published March, 2014.

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."

The reason North American zoos disrupt their captives' hormones, impair their reproductive health and deprive them of parenting is simple: They're afraid we'd get very angry if they didn't. They would have to dispose of healthy animals, usually at a young age, and it would be Copenhagen all over again. Mr. Tarry says a German survey found that 80 per cent of respondents approved of euthanasia "for conservation reasons. But if you did the same survey in Toronto or Vancouver, I'm sure the results would probably have been different."

An important lesson here is that zoos often do what they do because they think their public wants it that way. The current public in Canada doesn't want to know about zoo deaths that aren't "natural," or at least merciful to an ailing individual.

It wasn't always like that. During the great menagerie boom of the nineteenth century, it was well known that hunting animals for trophy and capturing them for zoos were almost the same activity. Several animals usually had to be slaughtered to retrieve one live specimen from a herd, and many of those specimens died during sea voyages to zoos in Europe.

Those that survived were put in barred pens that dramatized the "wild beast" on display, bringing it close while keeping it at bay. The point was to feel man's place at the top of the animal kingdom, and to see what one London broker of exotic beasts called "life-sized fragments of the empire." As authors Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier write in Zoos: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, "the public's relationship with the animals was based on attraction and repulsion, curiosity and fear."

By the beginning of the 20th century, rumblings about animal welfare had begun, along with a desire not just to gawk at the specimen, but to watch it move around and act like a wild thing. Zoos got rid of the bars, expanded the pens, and hired architects to create "natural" environments, instead of the pagodas formerly used for exotic appeal. Still, there was increasing concern about the effects of a constrained, totally managed life. Rilke's famous 1902 poem about a panther in Paris's Jardin des Plantes – "It seems to him there are/ a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world/ As he paces in cramped circles, over and over" – was reinterpreted as a near-clinical description of stereotyping, a form of repetitive pointless activity common to zoo animals suffering from mental illness.

Zoos shifted ground again, claiming that education and conservation were core purposes. But "the majority of people do not come to the zoo for an educational experience," say Bob Mullan and Garry Marvin in their book, Zoo Culture.

"I haven't seen anything empirical that shows there's real education going on," says Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Zoowatch, a Toronto-based advocacy group that successfully campaigned to have three elephants removed from the Toronto Zoo last spring.

In any case, people can learn far more from the vast array of nature programs available on television, many of which show animals in their natural habitat. The Animal Planet series Meerkat Manor, for instance, used infrared cameras and a remote-controlled platform to get an intimate, long-term look at African mammals that many viewers knew little about.

Zoos show no more about the lives of animals than an extraterrestrial could learn about humans by studying them only in prisons.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which represents 222 institutions, mostly in the United States and Canada, says its members spend $160-million on conservation each year – which sounds impressive until you see that zoos and aquariums contribute $16-billion annually to the U.S. economy.

In any case, "conservation" often focuses on animals in zoos, not endangered species in the wild. Last year, the Toronto Zoo, Canada's largest, spent a mere $136,000 on endangered species, one-fifth of 1 per cent of its $53.5-million budget. (The zoo declined to comment for this article.)

"If you took even a fraction of zoo incomes and applied it to real conservation, the results would be orders of magnitude better," Mr. Laidlaw says. "I used to think zoos had a grander purpose, but for the most part, they're entertainment centres."

But while film and TV have brought us closer to animal realities, they have also amplified a tendency to anthropomorphism that began with Rudyard Kipling's jungle books. Hardly any kind of film is more bankable than an animated blockbuster about cute talking critters. For all their talk about education, zoos haven't fought that distortion – they've seized on it with gusto.

"It's our CUTEST year ever!" says the "Cute Alert" page on the Toronto Zoo website, which also asks: "Is this much cuteness safe?"

This is a safe bet for increased attendance. The zoo's current stars two pandas from China, a polar-bear cub and some young white lions – all very high on the cuteness index.

Attendance was ebbing until the pandas began their five-year sojourn last March, but ticket and merchandise sales and memberships have jumped since then. The zoo expects 1.5 million visitors to file in for their dose of cuteness, according to estimates filed with the City of Toronto, which last year paid $11.1-million to keep the place running. The zoo built a panda interpretive centre for its Chinese guests, for the loan of which Beijing is charging $1-million a year. (The pandas will spend five years at Calgary Zoo after leaving Toronto in 2018.)

"The ability of zoos to continue to hold the support of the community is always an issue," says CAZA's Greg Tarry. Most depend heavily on visitors and donors just to keep the doors open.

In practice, that means that, if we want soothing talk about conservation and education, zoos will oblige; if it's cuteness that catches our attention, they'll spend millions to provide it.

Mr. Tarry thinks we wouldn't get a better outcome if there were no zoos. "We believe that seeing live animals has a powerful effect on people that you don't get from seeing a Disney movie," he says.

A violent TV show, he adds, doesn't connect with you the way that coming upon a violent traffic accident would. Without close contact, people may just forget about animals "in the wild," and what zoos now spend on endangered species may not be made up by other means.

Maybe. But when I think about my weekend with the kids at the zoo and the ROM, I have a hard time believing there's real life on display at either. I can't do anything for the ROM's stuffed animals, but I doubt I could ever again give money to a place that packages captivity and misery as entertainment and cuteness. Zoos are just too easy, too ready to help us pretend we don't have to concern ourselves with the de-naturing of our planet.

Is that what we want to teach our children?

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