Animal Rights

Zoothanasia: The Cruel Practice of Killing Healthy Zoo Animals

European zoos kill as many as 5,000 healthy animals every year.

Photo Credit: livingmaster/Shutterstock

Many zoos routinely kill healthy individuals they refer to as "surplus" animals because they're no longer useful to them. The animals can't be used as breeding machines or they're taking up space that's needed for other animals of the same or other species. As morally reprehensible as the practice of killing surplus animals seems, it's a reality and part of business as usual for many zoos.

In a BBC News essay by Hannah Barnes called "How many healthy animals do zoos put down?" we learn: 

EAZA [European Association of Zoos and Aquaria] does not publish these records or advertise the number of healthy animals that have been culled, but executive director Dr Lesley Dickie estimates that somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 animals are 'management-euthanised' in European zoos in any given year.

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Three-thousand to 5,000 animals isn't a small number at all. Indeed, I was shocked when I learned this fact and that this large number of animals was considered to be disposable at the whim of zoo administrators. 

'Do zoos really kill healthy animals?'

An early morning email asking, "Do zoos really kill healthy animals?" alerted me to yet another case of a zoo killing healthy animals, in this instance nine healthy lion cubs. In an essay by Lauren Lewis, we learn, "A zoo in Sweden has euthanized nine healthy lion cubs since 2012 because it reportedly could not afford to keep them."

People who didn't know that zoos do these sorts of sickening things were incensed. 

The zoo that's been guilty of this slaughter is called Boras Djurpark. Bo Kjellson, the CEO of the zoo, is quoted as saying that he "resorts to the controversial practice if the animals cannot be moved to other zoos or if they are rejected by their group.” Kjellson also notes, “It’s no secret in any way and we do not try to hide that we’re working this way. ... So, it’s, unfortunately, a natural path for groups of lions.”

I'll let you ponder this inane use of the word "natural." 

Let's be clear, the animals are not being euthanized, but rather 'zoothanized'

If a healthy animal has been put down, the key phrase is "Death by: Euthanasia (cull)"

Euthanasia is mercy killing that is used when an individual is terminally ill or suffering from terrible, chronic pain. The lion cubs who were killed were neither terminally ill nor in pain. Neither were other animals who have been killed in zoos—they were killed because they weren't useful any longer to a zoo's breeding program or other goals, usually dictated by monetary profit.

(For more discussion of this point please see "'Zoothanasia' Is Not Euthanasia: Words Matter," "Killing Healthy Animals in Zoos: 'Zoothanasia' is a Reality," "It's Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain," "Zoos Shall Not Kill Healthy Animals: A Moral Imperative" and The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age.)

Marius, the poster child for zoothanasia

Let's consider Marius, the young giraffe who became the poster child for zoothanasia when he was killed in 2014 at the Copenhagen zoo. His unnecessary death brought global attention to the heinous practice of zoothanasia. People who never previously had gotten involved in any sort of animal activism were outraged, and many voiced their opinions.

Nonetheless, outrage within the zoo community and among others did not stop Simon Tonge, the executive director of the UK's Whitley Conservation Trust, from claiming that Bengt Holst, the Copenhagen zoo's scientific director who wrote off killing Marius as business as usual, is a hero. A few weeks later, four lions were also zoothanized at the same zoo. At the meeting at which Tonge made this statement, I wasn't the only person who was floored, as I discovered at a break that afternoon. I guess the meaning of the word "hero," often used to refer to people having noble qualities or to those who have accomplished significant achievements, has taken a new turn. Calling Holst a "hero" is a marked perversion of the word.

"Zoothanasia" refers to what many zoos do: they kill healthy so-called "surplus" animals as if they're disposable and useless objects. They do this because the innocent and defenseless individuals are old or are genetically dead and wouldn't make useful contributions to an on-going gene pool (although some could be used for breeding), or they do this "in the name of conservation." Many try to sanitize the slaughter by using the word "euthanized" or the phrase "management-euthanized," but more and more people realize that they're just trying to mislead an uninformed audience, most of whom are shocked when they learn about zoothanasia. 

Concerning the practice of zoothanasia, I also had the opportunity to interview Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria (Australia), about her book titled Zoo Ethics. Our interview was published in a piece called "Zoo Ethics and the Challenges of Compassionate Conservation." 

I asked Gray if she would have killed Marius, honestly expecting that this was a clear case of wrongdoing and that she simply would say "no." Instead, she skirted around the issue and answered:

I agree that there is a difference between a death that is in the interest of the individual (euthanasia) and killing which terminates a healthy life. I challenge readers to think about the issues in the wicked questions section [of her book], including the death of Marius, and develop their own arguments. I have deliberately not given simple answers to what are complex issues. Many arguments can be mounted. I would hope that students of ethics can refine not only their personal view but also the plausible arguments to the contrary.

I honestly was very surprised. While Gray and I might respectfully disagree about various aspects of zoo ethics, I thought that killing a young healthy giraffe who was considered to be genetically dead would be a practice she would not support.

Zoothanasia has got to stop

Zoothanasia has got to stop, and one way to do it is to call widespread attention to what some zoos call "business as usual" and have people protest loudly. As the late Gretchen Wyler has aptly noted, "Cruelty can't stand the spotlight."

World Zoothanasia Day is February 9

I've dubbed February 9 World Zoothanasia Day and I hope that people will make their views known before, on and after that day. 

Please stay tuned for more discussion of zoothanasia and let's hope that it rapidly disappears as the standard operating procedure as more and more people take a strong stand against it. Putting a stop to zoothanasia is long overdue.

This article was originally published by Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He is the author of Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Find him online at marcbekoff.com.