Officials at the Odense Zoo and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, an umbrella organization of nearly 300 zoos in 44 countries, are staunch in their defense of the decision, and at least a little frustrated by the response.
“There is a major scientific basis for culling,” David Williams-Mitchell, communications and membership manager for EAZA, told The Washington Post. “… This is what the Odense Zoo thought was in the best interest of the lion and the species.”
According to Williams-Mitchell, the lion had to be killed because she was too closely related to the other lions in her enclosure, and there was a danger of inbreeding that would hurt the overall family group. Individual animals that are the result of incest can have harmful medical problems, and the future of a vulnerable species like the lion can be hurt by a lack of genetic diversity.
When this happens, Williams-Mitchell said, zoos can try to relocate their animals, but that’s a difficult task. Introducing a new lion to a group at a different zoo could end violently for the outsider. Putting her in her own enclosure would result in a lonely life for which lions are not well-suited. And simply finding a zoo with room and acceptable welfare standards is a challenge, he said. EAZA refuses to send animals to research facilities or any other “low-welfare situation.”
Asked if life in a low-welfare situation might be preferable to no life at all, Williams-Mitchell was firm.
“You cannot take an animal and just abandon it in terms of its welfare,” he said. “There’s a potential for a one-year-old lion to live for many years, and it would suffer during all that period.”
“Whereas if it’s culled we can ensure it doesn’t suffer,” he continued. “We strongly believe that life itself does not equal good welfare.”
The other option — contraception — was also ruled out. Some European zoos, including the Odense Zoo, don’t sterilize their animals because they want them to live as natural a life as possible, including breeding.
So the zoo chose to euthanize.
“Believe me, that is the last resort. I would always prefer to send an animal to another zoo in Europe than have to put it down,” Zookeeper Michael Wallberg Soerensen told the AP.
According to the AP, the Odense Zoo has conducted live dissections once or twice a year for the past two decades. Commenters on the zoo’s Facebook page mostly supported the program, agreeing that it would be educational for kids.
“The world is NOT a pink Disney movie,” one person wrote in Danish, the AP said.
Although Danish zoogoers were mostly unfazed, people elsewhere were incensed — and not for the first time.
Last February, a Copenhagen Zoo giraffe named Marius was euthanized to avoid inbreeding, then dissected and fed to the zoo’s lions, tigers and leopards. Staff at the zoo got death threats and the ouster of the zoo’s scientific director, Bengt Holst, was also demanded.
Jack Hanna, the TV personality and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, called Copenhagen Zoo’s decision “the most abominable, insensitive, ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of,” according to CNN.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which represents zoos in the U.S., issued a statement against giraffe’s euthanasia.
“The Association of Zoos and Aquariums regrets the unfortunate incident at the Copenhagen Zoo involving the death of a giraffe,” it read. “Incidents of that sort do not happen at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.”
Unlike many European zoos, AZA institutions use contraception to prevent the birth of animals that can’t be cared for.
And, according to the New York Times, after Marius’ death People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals projected a huge lit-up message at the zoo’s entrance: “Zoos are animal prisons,” it blared. “You paid the ticket, Marius paid with his life.”
This time, people are no less upset.
“Thousands of animals are euthanized each year in zoos across Europe where managers feel that preserving a species is more important than the individual animals,” reads the petition to stop the dissection. “The Odense Zoo needs to understand that their obvious lack of respect for individual animals’ lives is unacceptable.”
Williams-Mitchell chalked up the disparity in methods partly to cultural differences. But, he added, humans are willing to let animals die for all kinds of other reasons — livestock gets killed for food, pets get euthanized at overcrowded shelters, frogs and sheep are killed so that high school students can cut apart their organs in class. “What is the difference between those deaths and this one?” he wanted to know.
Roughly 3,000 to 5,000 animals are euthanized at EAZA zoos every year, executive director Dr Lesley Dickie told the BBC. Less than 100 of those are large mammals like lions and giraffes.
If an animal must be euthanized, a public dissection is an acceptable way to teach the public more about the animal, according to EAZA standards. Thursday’s dissection will be conducted in a protected area of the zoo, so that only visitors who wish to see it will be exposed.
“We are not chopping up animals for fun. We believe in sharing knowledge,” Wallberg Soerensen told the AP.
Zoogoers could learn a lot from a lion’s disemboweling, Williams-Mitchell said. After all, European cities used to host public dissections and anatomy lessons in full view of anyone passing by, he said.
“It helped establish the modern medical industry,” he said. “Where we are in human medical terms would never have happened if it weren’t for dissection. There is a reason for that and the reason is it’s a valuable educational tool.”