Should zoos slaughter their animals?
Should they feed them to the lions?

Written for The Daily Telegraph in February 2014

Colin Tudge weighs up the pros and cons

Zoo-haters, sharpen your knives. For Copenhagen Zoo has euthanized – killed – a perfectly healthy giraffe called Marius that they deemed to be surplus to requirements, even though various other zoos and an American millionaire offered to take him off their hands. Then the zoo vets dissected the hapless beast before an audience of children, and the keepers fed what was left to the lions. How can such ghoulishness possibly be justified?

There surely can be no good case for killing an animal that other, responsible people have offered to take care of. It costs a lot of money to transport a giraffe but expense in such instances should be no object – and could surely have been met by public appeal, with a great deal of educational PR along the way. But the rest is not so easily condemned. The heart may feel that Marius the giraffe (if he really had to be killed at all) should have been given a decent burial, but the head says the Danes got it right. In ethical matters, should we be ruled by the head or the heart?

Or then again -- should we have zoos at all? Since I campaigned in the early 1990s to keep London Zoo open when the zoo council wanted it closed, and then argued in Last Animals at the Zoo that zoos play an essential role in conservation, I must answer “Yes”. If endangered animals are to be conserved at all (and some say they shouldn’t, and some don’t care) then they should, ideally, be looked after in their native lands. But often, poachers or drought or the relentless spread of cities and industrial agriculture have made their native lands too dangerous. About half of all species are thought to be in imminent danger of extinction. The “charismatic mega-vertebrates”, including all the big cats, elephants, rhinos, and almost all primates, are on the brink, certainly in the wild.

So there is a strong case for breeding animals “ex situ”, in captive or semi-captive populations, far from the dangers that beset them at home. The long-term hope is that their native lands may again be made hospitable so they can be returned – which is usually far from easy but there’s a growing list of successes, starting with the Arabian Oryx is the early 1980s. For extra security, there should be several or many ex-situ populations of each species, spread around the world. The whole endeavour becomes doubly worthwhile if people are allowed in to see the captive animals and learn about them. So common sense and a desire to conserve lead us to re-invent the zoo. But modern zoos are, or should be, a very far cry from old-style menageries and they cannot be justified at all unless they contribute to conservation.

The main way for zoos to conserve is by captive breeding -- and this is difficult. It can be hard even to keep animals alive, let alone fertile. Many species won’t mate or breed unless the diet or the social conditions or the temperature or any one of a hundred other details are exactly to their taste. Baby black rhinos were not reared reliably until about 1990, when scientists at London Zoo showed that they need a special form of vitamin E which they get from leaves on the African savannah but not from conventional sources in England – and the kind they need was duly synthesized. But the greatest challenge is to maintain the genetic diversity of the captive group once they do start breeding. For no zoo can keep large populations of any one species – nothing to compare with the herds of the wild. In-breeding has led to the demise of many an apparently flourishing group. Animals earmarked for return to the wild must be as genetically various as possible so that natural selection, merciless as it is, can run its course. Curators must contrive to retain as much genetic variation as possible within populations which, relative to the pristine wild, are tiny.

Serendipitously, this can largely be achieved by a few rules of thumb – and one of the most obvious is to avoid genetic duplicates, especially of males. If two males are too similar, one of them has to go. That was problem the Danes faced, and they rose to the challenge. That is what all serious zoos must do. It’s the name of the game.

What of the decision to dissect the giraffe in public? Doesn’t that smack of the side-show? It would, if the dissection was simply for spectacle -- but that, surely, was not the case. Zoos must educate as well as breed animals and carry out research. Humanity right now is standing by while our fellow creatures are wiped out – and we surely would not be so complaisant if we knew more, and cared more. Dissection is not the ideal entrée into biology but it can play a part. So the Danes win here, too, by a short head.

Surely though, above all, we should treat our fellow creatures with respect. Was it respectful, after the giraffe had died in the cause of conservation and been cut up to educate human beings, to feed his corpse to the lions? Again, on the face of things – definitely not. But again, ugly pragmatism rears its head. For lions need conserving too. Meat from wild game with its profile of unsaturated fats is better for their health than the saturated fat of standard domestic beef. Can it be right to squander a ton of prime flesh of the very kind they need? Isn’t it merely self-indulgent to succumb to what we take to be our finer feelings?

Surely, too, we critics should remove the beams in our own eyes before attacking professionals who, in this hostile world, do their best even to make life possible for other creatures. Our general attitude towards other animals is at best confused. We treat our spaniels and our pussy cats as members of the family – which is fair enough, for modern science is now confirming what pet-lovers have always known: that non-human animals really do think (human language is not a prerequisite of thought),and (as David Hume said 250 years ago) they have feelings. Dogs, scientists have now officially confirmed, have a keen sense of justice. Anthropomorphism has been verboten in academic circles ever since Descartes declared in the 17th century that animals are just clockwork toys but modern science is bringing it back into fashion. It is perfectly reasonable to treat a dog as a friend.

But animals that aren’t our personal companions, we treat quite differently. Pigs are raced from birth to slaughter in sweat-boxes while chickens are bred and fed to reach oven weight in six weeks or less. Yet pigs are just as sensitive as dogs, and chickens are no slouches, conveying remarkably detailed information to their sisters and chicks and potential mates through an impressive vocabulary of clucks. But animals we choose to love we treat as fellows while those we prefer to eat we treat as commodities. How should we rate giraffes?

How, in any situation, can we judge what’s best? It is hard to improve on the Dalai Lama’s universal recommendation – that whatever the particularities, we should always do whatever seems most compassionate. But what, in the case of Marius the giraffe, was the most compassionate course?

Whatever the answer, Copenhagen is not alone. Now another Danish zoo, Jyllands Park, may well put down a seven year old male, also called Marius, partly because Jyllands already has another male and wants to acquire a female for breeding – and, says the keeper, the two males will fight. The Jyllands giraffe is also genetically superfluous and so, says the zoo, no other zoo should take him on and try to breed from him.

For my part, I’d like to see a retirement home for all the superfluous beasts – but if none were ever culled, even slow breeders like giraffes could soon fill entire continents. We can’t escape the ethical questions and the answer to each and all of them, to quote the Duke of Wellington, is a damn’ near-run thing.